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Review by Joshua Gibbs
Speaking of his wife and her brawny boss who is over for dinner, small town barber Ed Crane looks at the two flirting in his kitchen and remarks dryly to us, “I guess Doris liked all that he-man stuff. Sometimes I had the feeling that she and Big Dave were a lot closer than they let on. The signs were all there plain enough--not that I was gonna prance about it, mind you. It's a free country.” At first blush, it seems like Ed Crane isn’t the kind of man to prance about anything at all. I revisited this film recently with my wife on a cross-country Greyhound trip, and when it finished, she remarked, “You don’t often see a main character who is so passive,” and I agreed, as I had always enjoyed this quirk of the film as well.
But her comment sat strangely with me and it was likely my tenth or twelfth viewing of The Man Who Wasn’t There, though also my first time in six years, and it seemed quite different than when I last left it. Before the end of the film, "passive" hero Ed Crane has blackmailed his wife’s lover, gone into business with a homosexual, stabbed a fellow in the throat, taken over the family business, fallen in love with a high school girl, crashed a car, and written a series of essays about dying for a disreputable men’s magazine. But none of this really registers deeply on a first viewing, or a fifth. Rather, Crane seems passive because he is silent. He doesn’t trust himself to speak accurately, to communicate truthfully; his feelings for his wife are ineffable and so he anticipates the life to come, when he will be able to tell her “all those things they don’t have words for here.”
Though that silence isn’t the only thing about Crane that makes him seem passive. He’s set against a typically-Coen crowd of big personality loud mouths. Big Dave lies about his war record and cracks jokes about cannibalism over supper. Doris is a lush who can’t control her tongue at a party. Creighton Tolliver is a fast-gabbing perversity. Ed Crane’s quietude is revealed sharply against a flock of lip-flapping foils. He comes with no back story, neither does Doris, though both characters are in their mid to late 40s and there's not a hint they have had children. We learn in the third act of the film that Ed and Doris “have not performed the sex act in many years,” though we hardly need to be told this as they behave more like brother and sister than husband and wife— and within my experience, persons who use the expression “the sex act” tend to not engage in the sex act. Doris and Ed are tolerant, though not fond, of one another’s eccentricities. They do not touch, do not talk. When Doris bathes, she benignly tells Ed to shave her legs, and he performs the duty with the joyless and stoic resolve of a man changing his aged father’s bedpan. Is there some tragedy from their early married days that dogs them? Even this is too tidy a solution to the Crane’s puzzling marriage, as Ed sometimes remarks, “It was only a couple of weeks after we met that Doris suggested getting married. I said, Don't you wanna get to know me more? She said, Why, does it get better?... And she had a point, I guess. We knew each other as well then as now...” After so many years of the marriage, Doris is bored and distracting herself with bingo and booze and Big Dave. Feeling he is entitled to a little distraction himself, Ed anonymously blackmails Big Dave so he can go into business with a complete stranger. Ed lacks the interest in sex to have a proper affair, so he has a business affair, though Ed never exactly objects to a steady, dull life. He is a touch monk-like, white-cassocked for the task of cutting hair, occasionally musing on the certainty and strangeness of death. Doris, on the other hand, likes a party.
The Coens open up a host of intrigues into the Crane marriage in the first act, but pull away in the second to dwell on Ed’s emerging interest in Birdy Abundas, the teenage daughter of a lawyer friend Ed calls on from time to time after Doris is wrongfully arrested for Dave’s murder. Birdy is circumspect, demure, chaste (apparently)… Crane’s interest in her seems natural, (almost) platonic. They’re the only quiet, normal people in the story. He’s a crane, she’s a bird— even their names suggest they’re meant for each other. Birdy’s father is a heavy drinker, much like Doris, so Ed has a sympathetic understanding of the girl. She plays Beethoven piano sonatas in the evening, and Ed enjoys sitting in the Abundas’ living room listening to her practice while Mr. Abundas gets three sheets to the wind on the deck. Ed sees her talent and wants her to make something profitable and elegant of her life. It’s hard to say if Ed sees himself more as a surrogate father or an untimely boyfriend, though this confusion is emblematic of the whole film. When Big Dave figures out that it’s Ed who has blackmailed him, he asks, in exasperation, “What kind of man are you?” over and again. Later, when Ed’s brother-in-law suspects Ed let his wife rot in jail, he decks him and repeatedly asks the same question. By the end of the second act, we’ve forgotten what the dramatic question of the first act was.
What kind of man is Ed Crane? His lawyer, Freddie Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), tells the jury that Ed Crane is Modern Man, an ordinary man, guilty of living in a world that had no place for him. Earlier in the film, Creighton Tolliver persuades Ed to invest in dry cleaning as an enterprise of the “future.” An advertisement describes dry cleaning as “The Thoroughly Modern Way To Clean.” A door to door salesman tries to convince Ed and Doris to get a tarmac driveway because its “the modern way to –“ well, to something, Doris cuts him off before he can finish. Chronologically, Ed’s reluctance to purchase a modern driveway comes before his interest in a modern business. Is The Man a story of a fellow careening towards modernity? It is hard to say if Riedenschneider is a holy fool or just a regular garden variety fool; he knows enough about the Uncertainty Principle to identify it as German, but is only committed to Heisenberg’s idea inasmuch as he can hijack it and sound sophisticated before a small town jury. Is Ed Crane’s dispassion the result of thoroughly modern ennui? More than a few viewers have compared the plot of The Man to that of The Stranger, though, aside from an indifferent murder at the center of both plots, the Coens’ film pays little homage to Albert Camus’ recent classic. If the Coens had aimed to draft off an existentialist classic, it wouldn’t have been the humorless Camus novel, but Kafka’s daffy, jokey Metamorphosis. Too many jokes are made at the expense of 20th century philosophy to take Stranger comparisons seriously. Although, it also might be the case that the Coens can’t imitate without also trying to irritate. A Serious Man is, paradoxically, both an impious film and a studied footnote to the book of Job.
When we learn late in the film that Doris hanged herself while pregnant, the first two acts come into focus. Her affair with Big Dave opens the film, but so does her drinking. She drinks when she’s around Ed, perhaps to assuage her guilt, perhaps to forestall dealing with the ever-growing evidence that she’s had an affair. When Ed and Doris are called on to attend the wedding of a cousin, both are hesitant. Remarks Ed, “Doris didn't much feel like going, and I didn't either, but, like she said, we had a Commitment.” Overcome at the wedding, Doris drinks herself into a stupor then tells the bride, “Congratulations, Gina. It’s so goddamn wonderful. Life is so goddamn wonderful, you almost won’t believe it. It’s just a goddamn bowl of cherries, I’m sure. Congratulations on your goddamn cherries!” It’s hardly surprising that a woman who only darkens a church door when there’s bingo involved can but describe marriage as a curse of the Almighty. Doris is bitter and cynical and furious with herself for having gotten pregnant (why else would their "Commitment" continue to prompt action from the otherwise disillusioned Doris?). Because Doris is blackout drunk, Ed is able to leave their house unnoticed, kill Big Dave, and return before Doris wakes up. Doris later hangs herself using a dress Ed purchased for her. Both husband and wife inadvertently enable the other to commit murder. In the course of the film, they enable one another to do little else than this.
In the end, the man who wasn’t there becomes the man who isn’t there. When Ed is finally strapped to the mercy seat and the lever is pulled which will send him to his death, the screen fills with a searing, cleansing white. Crane narrates the entire film, though I feel he relinquishes control just prior to this exoneration. Has he represented his life faithfully? When he is found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit, we hear the judge claim Crane is “...a menace to society... a predator on his own wife, his business associates, on an innocent young girl...” and that final remark doesn’t square with Crane’s account of his time with Birdy, or else Birdy decided to lie about him to the court for no discernible reason.
The Man finishes rather contently with the death of its enigmatic hero, nor does he object to dying, but seems to relish the idea of rest and lucidity which will come when he can view his life as a whole, from a distance. Were Ed Crane a righteous man, he might go to his death with regret for his wrong and with a holy fear of God. At the same time, he seems a man of sufficient faith to recognize a life beyond the grave, and he owns a faith that some great reconciliation will take place there. The logic which underwrites this faith seems little more than a sense that something is genuinely wrong with the world, and that such wrongness necessarily entails correction. Nothing can truly be said to be wrong unless it is destined to be fixed. Or so I hope.