The storytelling irony here is that Ed hardly ever speaks outwardly, but the whole tale is told by him, solely from his point of view, in a voice-over (we later find out that a magazine paid him to tell his story), which actually reveals through his observations that he is more than just his job. But his lack of engagement with others, his lack of surface emotion, makes him look like a sleepwalker, which emphasizes Ed’s alienation, his outsider status in society. Since we are restricted to identify with Ed through his narration, the audience, feels set apart from the rest of Ed’s world, too. His taciturn personality is highlighted by the fact that the other men he associates with, co-worker, Frank (Michael Badalucco), Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), and lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) seem to never shut up. (Even the replacement barber Ed hires later in the movie talks all day long). Ed’s blank, glum appearance is indicative of the pessimistic, negative world in which he lives.
That doomed, helpless outlook shows up in various ways. Frank, reading the news, says the Russians exploded an atomic bomb, and “we can’t do a thing about it.” Ed, talking about where he lives, says his home is a bungalow, which has basic appliances, like a garbage disposal. After the description, he comments, “Guess you could say I had it made.” It is a sad assessment of what the working class is supposed to be satisfied with. The first shot of Ed’s wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), shows her checking out how she looks in her undergarments. Her make-up is important to her. In an interview, McDormand said that Doris, who is from a peasant Italian background, wanted to have glamour in her life, but with time, that hope faded. She finds solace in her appearance and her job as an accountant at the Nirdlinger department store, the place which sells glamorous things. She also relishes in the attention paid to her by Big Dave, her boss. He likes to tell stories about his heroic actions in the war, which contrasts with Doris’ boring life, and which makes Big Dave an appealing character to her. Ed says that he and Doris go to church each week, which sounds like maybe they at least have religion to provide an uplifting feeling. But he quickly follows up by saying that they attend the weekly bingo game. He says Doris didn’t believe in life-everlasting, and that bingo was the height of existence. Life here is cynical and uninspired.
Ed doesn’t even find bingo enjoyable. He doesn’t feel the need to “entertain” guests, though Doris still invites Big Dave and his wide-eyed wife, Ann (Katherine Borowitz) to dinner. (Despite Big Dave’s big talk, he runs the store because it is owned by his wife’s family, so he hasn’t really achieved his position on his own). The way that Doris pays attention to Big Dave, the way she laughs at his jokes, makes Ed suspect that the two are having an affair. But Ed is so detached from life that the infidelity doesn’t phase him, as he says, “It’s a free country.” Ed is a passive individual. He became a barber by “marrying” into the job. Frank is Doris’ brother and owns the barbershop. However, when Tolliver walks in as a customer, and talks about looking for an investor (after someone locally pulled out of the deal) in a new invention, “dry cleaning,” Ed’s first response is that the man is probably running a scam, but this time he questions that maybe his negative attitude toward life has relegated him to just being “the barber.” He contemplates changing from being passive to becoming proactive.
We then have a scene where Doris sits in a tub, self-absorbed in reading a magazine. She doesn’t even look at Ed, but asks him to shave her legs. He dutifully does so, and this grooming act is as close to intimacy that occurs between these two, with Ed having to do the barber job even in his own home. While still reading, Doris says without feeling, “love you,” as if uttering an obligatory afterthought of thanks. Perhaps Ed then goes to Tolliver after realizing how unrewarding life is for him after this episode. Tolliver doesn’t even recognize Ed without his smock, which again shows Ed’s sole identification is that of being a barber. Ed at first doesn’t trust Tolliver because in his world one is suspicious of anything being positive. Ed initially sees the wig-wearing, salesman personality of Tolliver as a possible swindler. But Tollier is legitimate, and offers a fifty/fifty split of the profits with Ed, who needs to get $10,000 dollars to invest. Tolliver in contrast to Ed and Doris, is an optimist, and says when one door closes (the man who declined the investment) another door opens, in the person of Ed. As we see later, this positive attitude is punished, not rewarded in this environment. It is appropriate that Ed will be a “silent partner,” given his quiet nature. Ed’s plan is to monetarily exploit his own wife’s affair by anonymously blackmailing Big Dave and getting him to pay the ten grand.
The next scene is a fitting contrast to what has just happened. Ed comes across a teenage girl, whose nickname is Birdie (Scarlett Johansson), playing classical music on a store piano. Ed is drawn to her talent. She, unlike others, remembers his name, seeing him as an individual. For Ed, she represents the hope for the future that innocent youth might be capable of, and which contrasts with the adult sordid, depressing existence in which Ed finds himself inhabiting. Her name implies that she could soar above those hopeless individuals that populate Ed’s world, including Ed himself. It’s possible that her nickname could awaken Ed’s own ability to fly, represented by his last name, Crane, so that he could rise above everyday dreariness.
In the middle of this story, Ed gets a call from Big Dave to meet him at his office in the store. It is late and they are the only two there. After Big Dave paid the blackmail money, he then decided to confront Tolliver when he started to suspect he was the person extorting him. He beat him until Tolliver told Big Dave that he got his money from Ed and wasn’t a blackmailer. Now Big Dave realizes that Ed knows about the affair with Doris and that Ed is ruining their lives for the dry cleaning opportunity. Big Dave attacks Ed, who is able to grab a letter opener in the struggle. He stabs Big Dave in the neck and Big Dave bleeds to death. Ed leaves and returns home, and unemotionally, finishes his story about how he and Doris met and were married. His lack of feelings even after causing the death of another person show how removed he is from life,.
Ed now finds himself even more alienated from life as he says, while watching people on the streets walking, that the recent events make him feel like he has “made it to the outside.” Big Dave’s wife, Ann, visits him, her eyes wider than ever, and tells Ed that she knows that Doris didn’t kill her husband. She relates this wild story about how, during a camping trip, Big Dave was abducted by aliens. She thinks his death is part of some type of government-extraterrestrial conspiracy. Life has become so absurd that people look for some type of explanation to bring meaning to existence, no matter how far-fetched, so as not to face the possibility that life may not have any absolute purpose.
Riedenschneider is not interested in truth. He just is concerned with strategy. He doesn’t care if Doris killed Big Dave, only that she didn’t confess to anything. In a meeting with the lawyer and Doris, Ed finally confesses to save Doris. But, the lawyer says that doesn’t work because there are no witnesses to back up his story of killing Big Dave, and it just looks like Ed is sacrificing himself for his wife. Ed tries to find Tolliver to back up his claims, but the man is missing. Riedenschneider, in another meeting, has a different plan, and it is an existential one. He references the scientific “Uncertainty Principle” (proposed by Werner Heisenberg) which says that just by observing something, you change it’s reality. He says, “the more you look, the less you really know. It’s a fact, a true fact. In a way, it’s the only fact there is.” The lawyer’s private detective found out that Big Dave was an office clerk during the war, so he was a phony when holding himself out to the community as a war hero. The argument here is, the more you look at something, more doubt presents itself. For Riedenschneider, that translates to “reasonable doubt.” He argues that someone who knew of Big Dave’s service record may have been blackmailing him. Who that person may be can’t be known, because nothing that is scrutinized can ever reveal the whole truth. He presents a world that is without understanding, which is as noir as film can get. The trial never takes place, because Doris takes her own life. Ed later finds out from a cop that Doris was pregnant with Big Dave’s child. Perhaps that fact and how far her life had turned for the worse brought her to suicide (like I said - not a happy world we have here.)
Ed says he was now “like a ghost,” the man who isn’t there. His reality as a person is vanishing, and that is why he says of himself that his only existence was tied to the fact that he “was the barber.” He, like Ann, looks for answers somewhere. He reads about UFO’s, and goes to a medium, who he realizes is a phony, which just reinforces his pessimism about living. After a music competition, he sees Birdie with a young boy, and Ed is intimidating toward the youth. It’s as if he wants to keep Birdie pure, untainted by growing up, which would include sexual experiences, so that he could save her from another life “going down the drain.” He takes Birdie to a musical expert, but this man dashes Ed’s hopes, saying that Birdie is a nice girl, but ordinary, and might make a good “typist.” On the drive home, Ed can’t face more mediocrity, and says the music teacher is wrong. But, he has projected onto Birdie his own hope. The girl admits that she really has no ambition to become a pianist. She is very grateful to Ed, and proceeds to try to thank him by performing oral sex on him. Her fall from grace in Ed’s eyes surprises and literally damages him as he gets into a car accident.
Birdie sustains a broken collar bone. While unconscious in the hospital, Ed remembers an episode with Doris dismissing a salesman and looking at Ed with disappointment because Ed didn’t get rid of the man. They sit on their couch and say nothing. Even Ed’s memories are disappointing. Ed wakes up to discover he is being arrested for killing Tolliver. The submerged car with Tolliver inside was discovered by a young boy who was swimming. The business documents that Ed signed were with Tolliver. The police think that Tolliver found out that Doris stole money for the deal, and Ed killed him to silence the man. Ed knows from Big Dave’s confession that he beat Tolliver, and so he was the one who killed Tolliver and dumped the body.
The next film is The Natural.