The Coens for Lent – The Man Who Wasn’t There

The ninth of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]

Much like Lent, The Man Who Wasn’t There is all about what do in the quiet desperation that emerges from the void.

Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane is a man absent from his own life. He’s quiet, complacent, emotionless, and disinterested. Thornton’s narration is perfectly monotone, devoid of any flourish, delivering us the emptiness of Crane’s ambition. Out of this void, though, something emerges. Ed gets a chance to risk it all on a business, and he throws his marriage, his work, his whole life on the table for the opportunity to amount to something. He’s not unlike Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo, going to extreme ends to break out of a cycle. But where Jerry is nervous, Ed is cool; where Jerry is reactive, Ed is meticulous.

And yet they end up in much the same place, as the events they set in motion careen out of their control. Ed’s fate is sealed primarily when he is somewhere else, or even unconscious. While so many Coen characters continuously dig their own grave by trying desperately to reset the table, Ed Crane is either a dispassionate witness or somewhere else entirely while the events he intiated seal his fate.

It is in our moments of desperation where we reach out for something new, for better or for worse. In Lent, we choose sacrifice, simplicity. We humble ourselves, choosing to remove distractions or barriers in our lives. Over the course of forty days, this period of humility (or humiliation) can wear us down. The hope is that in the monotony and in the moments of desperation, hunger, and boredom, we turn toward God in a new way. This is a chosen, participatory and performative desperation, but nonetheless real. It causes us to risk, to grasp at something we may have overlooked before.

For Ed, his quiet desperation leads him to fall for a con and lose everything. Our hope in Lent is that this Jesus who we are following toward Jerusalem is the real deal, because we’ve given up everything to follow him. Only time will tell if our hopes are vindicated.

[See all entries in “The Coens for Lent” series]

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