Albert Camus meets Dashell Hammett in the Coen Brothers’ tale of a barber, Ed Crane, who thinks his life might be better were he to dream of being in the exciting world of dry cleaning, or at least dream of being the silent partner of someone else in the exciting world of dry cleaning. Yes, that’s right, this is an existentialist film noir about a barber putting venture capital into a dry cleaning operation. But, wait, it’s not just any existentialist film noir about a barber turned venture capitalist. No, it’s an existentialist film noir about a barber turned venture capitalist that was specially crafted by the genius of Joel and Ethan Coen to be as dull and lifeless as possible. Gee, now doesn’t that sound fun.
Do you force yourself to reread The Stranger only once a year for fear the binding of your dog-eared, highlighted copy will give out from overuse? Do you repaint random rooms of your home on a weekly basis because you enjoy observing the drying process? Do you find men that speak in a monotone sexy? Do you wonder what happened to Sam Spade’s barber? If you answered yes to all these questions, then… wow… I guess the Coen brothers 2001 salute to the monotone voice—The Man Who Wasn’t There—is the film for you. Please return to your paint observations as I back slowly away.
It’s not as though The Man Who Wasn’t There is a poorly made film. The black and white cinematography is stunningly beautiful. The score is superb. The plot is nicely complex and relatively free of holes. The acting, while stilted and stylized, succeeds in portraying exactly what the Coen brothers wanted to portray. And it’s not as though nothing happens in the film. It’s got adultery, blackmail, embezzlement, and a couple of murders. It’s just that all of that occurs very slowly underneath two hours of the monotone narration of a passionless barber. After 90 minutes of this, the concept of gnawing my right leg off began to sound like not such a bad idea just so I could feel something, anything again. At two hours, there were teeth marks in my thigh.
So, how does it fare as an atheist film? Well, certainly, a caring god would never have engineered a universe where I would have had to sit through this film once, much less twice. Though, I suppose that’s not really the analysis we are going for here at The Film Atheist.
The Man Who Wasn’t There, despite its failings as an enjoyable film, doesn’t do too badly on the atheist scale. Yes, someone does a bad thing, leading to many bad things happening to them, which is usually a hallmark of the “obey god or else” school of cinematic propaganda. However, there is no sense of universal justice behind this, and there is no counter example of someone who has good things happen to them because they live life “properly.” That leaves the film with the depressing but difficult to argue against message that life just sucks. While this doesn’t exactly make it an atheistic film (the existence of one or more gods managing the universe does not preclude life from sucking), this does make the film’s message antithetical to the traditional omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent god concept currently the fashion in archconservative theistic circles.
So, The Man Who Wasn’t There gets an extra half point on the Atheism scale due to blasphemy. This, however, fails to make up for the boredom this film inflicts upon the audience. If you’re ever given the opportunity to watch this film, I can only say give it a pass in favor of doing something actually fun by comparison for those two hours, say watching grass grow.