Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen | The Ladykillers

on the side of the devils
by Douglas Messerli 

Ethan and Joel Coen (screenplay, based on the screenplay by William Rose, and directors) The Ladykillers / 2004

The Coens’ 2004 film The Ladykillers might be perceived to be a testimony to faith. After all, the central figure—and more importantly, the only survivor of the central characters—Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), is a devoted Christian, who regularly attends church services, sends a monthly $5.00 check to Bob Jones University, and by the end of the movie she gives away more than a million dollars to that beloved charity. Her religiosity, moreover, is the cause of the Coens’ presentation the film’s numerous gospel and spiritual music, which helps to make this film so entertaining.  

      All right, she also is a busybody, visiting the police to complain about a neighbor boy who has become involved in “hip-hop,” and she evidentially regularly relies upon them to retrieve her tree-dwelling cat, Pickles. But even then, she might be described as a gentle, caring community leader with a strong sense of moral rightness, even if they view her as slightly insane.

      The film even makes a kind tepid attempt to present us with actual sermon; and surely the black comedic death of all the “criminals”—the erudite, dandyish Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks); Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), a hot-tempered, badmouthed janitor; Garth Pancake (J. K. Simmons), an expert at demolitions who himself is often ready to explode as he suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome; “The General” (Tzi Ma) a chain-smoking Vietnamese tunneler who runs a local Hi-Ho Donut store; and Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst), an empty-minded hulk of a football player—hints at a kind of moralistic fable in the Coens’ telling, that was not truly present in the original British version of this film.

       But even though faith seemingly is celebrated and awarded in The Ladykillers, we have to recognize it as a cynical testament to belief. If the old lady survives numerous attacks and is even unknowingly awarded the stolen money by the police themselves—all suggesting that she is being miraculously protected by some higher power or, at least, the spirit of her dead husband—we recognize that writer-directors have not suddenly seen the holy light, but are simply engaged with the irony and naughtiness of it all; and besides it gives them the perfect excuse to anthologize, as they also did in O Brother Where Art Thou?, the standard and contemporary classics of American Southern music, which, it is apparent, they do very much love.
       The real heroes of this film, although they all justifiably die, are the satiric outsiders: the dumb (Lump), the lame (Pancake not only is suffering from IBS but loses his finger), the violent (both “The General” and Gawain had short fuses, the former regularly swallowing up his own lit cigarettes to hide them from Mrs. Munson) and the intellectually hubristic (Dorr). These criminal misfits, failed men who yet seek for something larger than themselves—in this case, a robbery of a crooked enterprise, a gambling boat, itself protected as Dorr later points out, by an even larger crook, an insurance company—are just the kind of subjects upon who the Coen brothers focus on nearly all of their films.

     Yes, they are laughable fools, perhaps not really worth our serious attention, but the Coens clearly adore them and their sinning ways far more than the righteous “winners.” In a sense all of them are fools and dunces. Dorr is a figure out of the past, regularly quoting Edgar Allan Poe and other Romantic figures. Lump is so brain-dead that he often speaks up as the most honest and straight-forward of them all, and ultimately he is even willing to give up the money go to church, as Munson demands (his admission that he cannot actually play the sackbut, is a gem). Even Gawain and Pancake are also lovers, Gawain of women with beautiful asses (his pursuit of which temporarily loses him his job) while Pancake has his beloved Mountain Girl. “The General” is bravely fierce, easily foiling, early in the film, a would-be robbery. These human failures are at the heart of nearly every Coen film. While those who are actually brave, have true faith, and share high moral values may win out in the end, in film after film, it is the losers whom the Coens’ celebrate. And, strangely enough, in that preoccupation they do, in fact, resemble the devout believer, Flannery O’Connor.  
      If good guys must win, these filmmakers seem to argue, it’s the bad guys who have the most fun—or, at least, are more fun to watch. Besides, without them, the saintly would have no one to convert.

Los Angeles, March 1, 2016.

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