Plot Holes: The Man Who Wasn’t There 


“Plot Holes” is an occasional column about narrative lapses in the movies. This entry gives away crucial twists in The Man Who Wasn’t There.

The Coen brothers are not usually fodder for Plot Holes: They’re famous for stories that move along with an inexorable logic. Typically the brothers take an initial human foible—like a husband’s greed or a criminal underling’s ambition—mix in a dose of circumstance, and then let it all play out, usually to a macabre, black-comic conclusion. Along the way, each step makes perfect sense. Most critics think that’s true of the Coens’ latest, The Man Who Wasn’t There, even critics who don’t love the movie: The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane seems to think that as far as the logic of crime goes, the flick is “fine and smart.”Lane says it’s “as though everything is being taken down to be used as evidence” against the lead, and ultimately doomed, character, who’s played by Billy Bob Thornton. The problem is, the most glaring piece of evidence in the whole story is never used.

(Warning: Stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens.) Thornton’s character, a small-town barber named Ed, needs $10,000 to get in on a jazzy new business venture called “dry cleaning” (this is 1949). Ed knows that his wife, Doris, a department store bookkeeper, is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave, and he decides to blackmail Big Dave to raise the money. Big Dave pays up but eventually figures out that the extortionist was Ed. They get into a bloody fistfight, and Big Dave is well on his way to beating Ed to death when Ed, out of desperation, kills him with the little Japanese dagger Big Dave uses to clip the ends off cigars. Ed drops the knife to the floor and leaves.

From here on, the Coens spread out their crazy quilt. Doris gets charged with Big Dave’s murder. As the police point out, she had motive, means, and opportunity: She was not only having an affair with Big Dave, but was also helping him cover his embezzlement of store funds by cooking the books. And, they say, the little dagger they’ve recovered is a typical ladies’ weapon. It looks like Doris feels the case is ironclad too, because, right before the trial is to start, although she knows she’s innocent, she hangs herself. 

Eventually, Ed is charged, tried, and convicted not of Big Dave’s murder but of a murder he didn’t commit, leaving us with a world so evacuated of meaning that even justice is nothing but a sick accident.

The trouble with all this is that Doris would never have been charged with Big Dave’s murder. Remember that dagger? Ed is shown dropping it to the floor without wiping it clean, so it must have his fingerprints on it. Of course it would probably have Big Dave’s prints on it too, but the cops would have detected this because they would have taken the dead man’s prints and therefore would have known that any other prints on the dagger belonged to the murderer. Now, it’s possible that the cops wouldn’t have thought to see if Ed’s prints matched the killer’s. But they certainly would have checked Doris’, discovered that they didn’t match, and realized she didn’t do it. And Doris and her high-priced defense lawyer, knowing that her prints were not on the knife (but not knowing that her husband’s were), would have pressed this point. Perhaps some viewers assumed that the modern fingerprint classification system was, like dry cleaning, not yet part of the police mind-set in 1949. But it was. By that year, the FBI already had more than 100 million fingerprint cards on file.

The Coens’ masterpiece Fargo is propelled at every turn by the relentless snoopiness of the rural Minnesota cop played by Frances McDormand (who also plays Doris). But the problem with their new movie is that while the man who wasn’t there really was there, the cops aren’t all there.