Written by Joel (nominally credited as director) and producer Ethan, The Man Who Wasn't There is an homage to the film noir of the 1940s, replete with all the typical Coen Brothers quirks. Set in 1949 before the post-World-War-II American prosperity really began to blossom, and filmed by cinematographer Roger Deakins in a black-and-white world of gauzy light and menacing shadow, the Coens' film is a gray-themed story about small-town characters largely alienated from the details of their lives. Ed's wife Doris (Frances McDormand) works as a bookkeeper and possesses vague ambitions for promotion, but Ed is a barber only because his brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco), owns a barber shop. The Cranes' life together has achieved a middle-class freedom from material want, but has provided them with little else to savor. They married after only a short acquaintance and in a troubling atmosphere of resignation. From there they drifted apart. They have not had sex "for some years."
Ed is so listless and emotionally stymied he can do little other than lift an omnipresent cigarette to his lips. He suspects Doris is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), but he can barely stir himself to feel resentment. Then Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) happens into town with a gangbusters new idea: dry cleaning. For only $10,000 Ed can become a partner. That Tolliver wants him to be a "silent partner" is among the film's drolleries. Ed hasn't got $10,000, of course, but he is stimulated to blackmail Big Dave for it. And thereby begins a curling series of toppling criminal dominoes that eventually results in embezzlement, assault and murder, suicide and execution.
The Coens have said they were inspired by the noir work of novelist James M. Cain, but Ed's deadpan narration is also reminiscent of Jim Thompson. Still, neither Cain nor Thompson, who displayed their dark visions without the wink of distancing irony, would recognize as their own spawn the predictable elements of Coen goofiness. A couple of cops show up with Joe Friday posture and Stan Wojciehowicz demeanor. Big Dave's wife, Anne (Katherine Borowitz), accounts for the drought in her sex life as the product of Big Dave's having been abducted and "tested" by the aliens who landed in Roswell, N.M. And then, once Doris is charged with murder, flamboyant attorney Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) arrives to erect a defense based on the theory that the observation of phenomena changes the nature of the phenomena observed.
Some of the Coens' bad habits make an appearance as well. Plotting isn't conventionally careful. Since Big Dave and Ed are hardly friends, we haven't a clue why Big Dave suddenly begins to confide in Ed his assortment of problems. This serves the narrative purpose of confirming Ed's suspicions, but only at the expense of violating character construction. Elsewhere, after her arrest, Doris appears with a black eye, but we never learn who hit her or why. And, of course, the Coens seem addicted to stylistic flourishes that don't lend themselves to ready analysis. In Miller's Crossing a hat tumbles repeatedly across the landscape, to what end we never discover. Here, a hubcap spins off a crashed car and rolls away in stylized close-up for what purpose we cannot determine. Most mysteriously, the Coens often include passages in their films that seem to stand outside the core narrative. In Fargo, Marge has lunch with a creepy old acquaintance who brags about a whole life he hasn't lived, but that character plays no role whatsoever in the story of an embezzling auto dealer whose kidnapping plot results in murder and mayhem. And in The Man Who Wasn't There, Ed becomes fascinated with the piano-playing talents of a young high school girl (Scarlett Johansson) and tries to assist her in achieving a concert career. But again, that development is a narrative cul-de-sac off the main storyline of Ed's attempt to blackmail Big Dave.
Coen Brothers fans, however, among whom I number, have long since determined to tolerate the Coens' excesses for the pleasures of their distinctive vision. And here you the get bonus of a non-ironic melancholy about missed opportunities. Doris and Ed's connection is tenuous and not sustained, but that doesn't mean that it needed to have been. Ed learns that lesson by the film's end, and though the understanding arrives too late for him, it nonetheless provides important instruction for us.