It’s a man-eat-man world

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Directed by Joel Coen

(Billy Bob Thornton, James Gandolfini, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco)


Shot on color negative stock and printed in black and white, the Coen Brothers’ latest film The Man Who Wasn’t There is overtly a noir-ish homage to the hard-boiled fiction of pulp poet James M. Cain. It is also a forum for addressing one of their pet issues: What exactly makes a man a man?

The question, which has been raised in several of their films, was perhaps best answered by The Dude, the perpetually pot-smoking character from The Big Lebowski. When he’s asked what it takes to be a man he hits deeply on his freshly rolled joint, calmly exhales, and wisely answers, “A pair of testicles.”

While The Dude’s simplistic answer seemed to suffice for that film, the Coens delve more deeply into the subject in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Appropriately set in 1949, the film is steeped in the existentialistic disorientation of post-WWII America. Set in an era where morality is subjective, as are the traditional definitions of gender roles, the question of what it means to be a man is especially poignant.

This is the question that burns in the heart of the emasculated antihero Ed (Billy Bob Thornton), a soft-spoken barber who works for his wife’s brother. Ed’s wife Doris (Frances McDormand), who lends an interesting twist to the classic femme fatale, is obviously the one who wears the pants in the marriage. She sets the couple’s social agenda, she makes Ed shave her legs in the bathtub, and is in fact so virasinous, that she’s having an affair with her boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini).

Big Dave, with his booming personality and his constant stream of war stories, represents Ed’s antithesis, the paradigm of masculinity. Ultimately, a confrontation between the two diametrically opposed men serves as a metaphor for the film’s larger question as it pits Traditional Masculinity vs. Modern Man. Is “a pair of testicles” enough, or is the definition of manliness a malleable one that varies according to the situation?

-Christopher Yocum




The Man Who Wasn’t There opens today at the Uptown Theatre.