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The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

1:36 | Trailer
A laconic, chain-smoking barber blackmails his wife's boss and lover for money to invest in dry cleaning, but his plan goes terribly wrong.


Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (uncredited)


Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
4,476 ( 452)
Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 24 wins & 41 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Billy Bob Thornton ... Ed Crane
Frances McDormand ... Doris Crane
Michael Badalucco ... Frank
James Gandolfini ... Big Dave Brewster
Katherine Borowitz ... Ann Nirdlinger Brewster
Jon Polito ... Creighton Tolliver
Scarlett Johansson ... Birdy Abundas
Richard Jenkins ... Walter Abundas
Tony Shalhoub ... Freddy Riedenschneider
Christopher Kriesa ... Officer Persky
Brian Haley ... Officer Krebs
Jack McGee ... P.I. Burns
Gregg Binkley ... New Man
Alan Fudge ... Dr. Diedrickson
Lilyan Chauvin ... Medium


1949, Santa Rosa, California. A laconic, chain-smoking barber with fallen arches tells a story of a man trying to escape a humdrum life. It's a tale of suspected adultery, blackmail, foul play, death, Sacramento city slickers, racial slurs, invented war heroics, shaved legs, a gamine piano player, aliens, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Ed Crane cuts hair in his in-law's shop; his wife drinks and may be having an affair with her boss, Big Dave, who has $10,000 to invest in a second department store. Ed gets wind of a chance to make money in dry cleaning. Blackmail and investment are his opportunity to be more than a man no one notices. Settle in the chair and listen. Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


The last thing on his mind is murder.


Crime | Drama

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for a scene of violence | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »





English | Italian | French

Release Date:

16 November 2001 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

The Barber Project See more »


Box Office


$20,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend USA:

$664,404, 4 November 2001

Gross USA:


Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS

Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


In his 2017 book, The Coen Brothers, Ian Nathan reports that Joel Coen called Billy Bob Thornton to say the brothers had a film for him. What's it about, Thornton asked. "It's about a barber who wants to be in the dry-cleaning business," was the reply. "I'll take it," said Thornton, who had been a long-time fan of the Coens, having famously remarked, "They just don't suck." See more »


In the opening scene a reflection of the camera and scaffolding is visible in the barber pole as the angle shifts from looking up to looking down. See more »


[first lines]
Ed Crane: Yeah, I worked in a barbershop, but I never considered myself a barber. I stumbled into it. Or married into it, more precisely.
See more »

Crazy Credits

Special thanks to citizens and merchants of Orange, CA and The Bungalow Heaven Neighborhood - City of Pasadena, CA. See more »

Alternate Versions

Though original intended to be released in black and white, the movie was originally shot in color. Some countries released the movie in color (e.g. Japan) for marketing reasons. Both versions are released on home media. See more »


References Shadow of a Doubt (1943) See more »


Piano Sonata No.30 in E major, Op.109
Written by Ludwig van Beethoven
See more »

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User Reviews

What kind of a man are you?
2 November 2001 | by nunculusSee all my reviews

It starts as another Coenian postmod pastichey picaresque: Noir Guy (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber, has a souse of a wife (Frances McDormand, floridly cast "against type") who loves bingo and her boss at work, a scheming fat man named Big Dave (James Gandolfini). When a comically inept con man (Jon Polito) comes to town, wanting to find a partner in a new business called "dry cleaning," we can see the signs a block away: Blackmail, best-laid-plans, murder ahead. The emphasis in this extremely academic take--more academic even than the Ph.Dish MILLER'S CROSSING--is on the sociological and political roots of noir. The postwarness, the cold-warness, the sunshine-boomtownness of the movie's mythical Santa Rosa (the location of SHADOW OF A DOUBT--but really, it's just early-Ellroy L.A.) are all underlined and double-underlined.

So far, so cool--and the movie is far easier to enjoy as a series of Abstracted Noir Components than the similarly suspension-of-disbelief-free LOST HIGHWAY. But then Noir Guy starts contemplating hair. He is the Sisyphus of Noirtown, performing a perfectly stupid task that never ceases to repeat itself, without gathering the slightest meaning. He even, in his blank way, waxes philosophical, like a Marine-town Woyzeck: "I want...I wanna put hair with...dirt, regular house dirt." "Ed, what the heck are ya talkin' about?" "I...Skip it."

And soon the movie metamorphs into a fedoras-and-Pall-Malls riff on Camus' THE STRANGER. Why does the Man Who Wasn't There kick off the chain of events that brings down all manner of ruination? Jealousy? Boredom? No ordinary human motives will do. And the Coens slyly insert a shyster lawyer (Tony Shalhoub) who's full of dime-store variants on post-structuralist touchstones: he uses the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as a sort of Twinkie Defense, and claims that his client is "Modern Man himself!...Indict him, and you are indicting yourself!" All of which, the Coens make clear, is so much malarkey--a way of kidding oneself, substituting entropy for dogma, avoiding the scary unknowableness of being alive.

Ethan Coen described THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE as "the movie Martin Heidegger would have made if he had come to Hollywood"--unusually forthright for two guys who are just, aw shucks, entertainers. Like Spielberg's A.I., it uses a perfectedness of technique to render the world as an arrangement of totemic abstractions--pixilated dots that don't add up to a coherent object. The movie gets you, terrifyingly and melancholically, inside the head of a guy for whom the simplest, table-and-chairs stuff is ceasing to make sense. And the brothers use Carter Burwell's variant on Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" in a way that's as crazily persistent, and ceaselessly effective, as the insanely repetitive romantic theme from Godard's CONTEMPT. (Not even Godard has used late Beethoven so aptly.) Like BARRY LYNDON, another movie whose central question is "What kind of a man are you?," THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE has an elusive, smokelike plangency. It's a picture you'll puzzle over, and sigh achingly at its images, for many years to come.

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