The year is 1949. Billy Bob Thornton is Ed Crane. He works at a barber shop, but he doesn’t really consider himself a Barber. He just cuts the hair. Frances McDormand is Doris Crane, his wife. She’s two timing Ed with her boss, Big Dave Brewster, who owns Nerdlinger’s department store in downtown Santa Rosa. Ed gets a whiff of their infidelity. How does he know? A husband just knows. He sees his way out. He blackmails, anonymously, Big Dave for $10,000, or else Ed Crane will know about he and Doris. Then, as every good film noir should, everything begins to go to hell.
Billy Bob Thornton is a powerhouse blank face as the titular “man.” The Coen Brothers, displaying here as always their precise grip on the English language, crack the door into Crane’s head via voice over. As Ed says, he doesn’t talk much. He sets the movie’s plot off with his blackmail note and dreams of breaking into the dry cleaning business with Creighton Tolliver (a visibly greasy Jon Polito) but otherwise things simply happen. Things happen around him. Things happen to him. He sits around in the shadows. He smokes cigarettes. He visits, or is visited by, a slew of characters so colorful it seems to explain why the picture itself is sucked dry.
It’s a screwy tragic Coen caper, one that finally seemed to scratch the itch they’d had festering since 1984’s Blood Simple. As always, the film engages technically in this overlooked entry in the Brothers’ oeuvre. At first glance, it’s a detached picture emotionally, its as black as its shadows. Ed Crane shouldn’t be captivating. But as the film plods along meticulously and coldly we begin to feel all of the irony and wry melancholy the Brothers so often deal with hanging thickly around Crane like Beethoven’s Sonata 14. Or maybe just the smoke from his cigarettes.