In Ed’s narration, Thornton easily fits into the role that various cowboys and railroad men had occupied previously. His speech is measured, unhurried and seemingly in possession of a calm all-knowingness that eludes not just the other characters in The Man Who Wasn’t There, but in all of humanity. Ed is the average guy that didn’t have it all work out the way he imagined it during his younger days, but can’t really take issue with anything in his life.
Meeting his wife and subsequently marrying her – at her behest – only a few weeks after their introductions lends vast insights into the character viewers watching gaze at freshly cut heads of hair and pontificate on the meaning of its re-growth. In some ways, Ed is beyond the normal guy. And he does still have desire, the character just keeps it to himself.
The occupation Ed finds himself working simply came to him along with his wife, although, he doesn’t consider himself a barber. He just works at a barbershop – second chair to his brother-in-laws first chair. The oddly intimate profession, though, doesn’t get Ed closer to other people. He simply clams up, smokes cigarettes and cuts hair. It’s not a bad gig.
Doris, Ed’s wife, played by Frances McDormand, has a job as well. Except hers is replete with a built in lover. Big Dave, a department store manager in the same way that Ed’s a barber, exudes masculinity in his rotund gut and huge laugh. He’s an undeniable personality and one that easily over shadows Ed.
Engaged in an affair, Doris and Big Dave, don’t flaunt their relationship, but it’s rather apparent to viewers and all but obvious to Ed. Much as he’s not running the barbershop and only counts as second chair, Ed’s his wife’s second choice, but still acts the part, doting when necessary and taking care of her when she’s too drunk to act properly in public. It could, in fact, just be part of the one day-long job. Both end up being pretty impersonal and unsatisfying for Ed. And that might be why he attempts to move into the dry cleaning business, which is really when the whole blackmail plot begins.
I won’t ruin the plot for you faithful readers, but after Doris winds up accused and locked away of some foul crime, Ed occupies his time by heading to friend’s house and hearing his daughter play piano.
Finding inspiration, if such a loaded word could be levied on a man void of feeling, Ed eventually sets up a meeting with some piano impresario in San Francisco for the girl to gauge her talents. The trip back ends in tragedy. But it should leave viewers wondering if Ed was interested in music or the girl played by Scarlett Johansson. It could be construed as a feigned interest, connecting it with Big Dave’s truth stretching in regards to his war time service.
Nothing in this town is what it appears, though. That’s what the aliens, infidelity and lost business opportunities are meant to display. Ahhhh, America.