[Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared in the April 13, 2004 edition of New York Press.]
After 20 years of making movies, the Coens still don’t get the acclaim they deserve. Even in rave reviews, one senses a mistrust that originates in their perceived esthetic violations: their supposed hipness and detachment, their unwillingness to create “realistic” characters, their fondness for homage and pastiche and most of all, their relentless pursuit of visual and rhythmic perfection. They have been cited as smarty-pants pranksters who believe in nothing and are content to make movies about movies.
The latter sentiments were summarized in Anthony Lane’s April 5 New Yorker review, which called their remake of the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers “dead in the water” and posed the rhetorical question, “Are these super-controlled filmmakers content with a career as pasticheurs?” Lane’s dismissal was prefigured in a more thorough and respectful 2000 Film Comment piece on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which writer-editor Kent Jones said many positive and even rapturous things about the Coens, yet still seemed unwilling to embrace their work in its totality. “In the end,” Jones writes, “no matter how much you’ve been entertained, you’re left with the nagging questions: who are the Coen Brothers and where are they coming from? Even Kubrick, the one cinematic idol whose shadow falls over Joel and Ethan’s playground, never hid himself so completely within his work.”
But even if we assume every charge leveled against the Coens is true, a fan is still entitled to reply, “So what?” If the above qualities are indeed cinematic crimes, then Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Carol Reed, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles and Kubrick should be deemed arch-criminals, and the Coens should trumpet their own guilt from the highest rooftop and urge fellow filmmakers to embark on like-minded lawbreaking sprees. If there’s an obvious downside to their approach, it’s that it’s so outwardly “perfect” that it encourages critics to deface each movie’s smooth surface rather than probe its roiling depths. That’s a shame, because the unity and complexity of the Coens’ work has few equals in modern cinema.
Furthermore, contrary to charges that they believe in nothing, I think the Coens are among the most moral (even moralistic) directors alive. Most (but not all) of their pictures are morality plays that deflate the selfishness and pomposity of individuals while finding good even in the most flawed social orders. Their films also insist, unfashionably, that there really is good and evil, and that while good is usually more naive than evil, it is (lucky for us) more stubborn and orderly.
Consider, for example, the fact that most Coen films revolve around showdowns between ego figures and id figures. (Think of the super-domestic mom in Raising Arizona, fighting to keep her reformed outlaw husband from being “seduced” by a pair of prison escapees and a demonic biker figure who first appears in a dream. Think also of Fargo, which contrasted pregnant cop Marge’s super-orderly, even dull home life against the random, whoremongering viciousness of the film’s nomadic criminals.) Think also of the Coens’ subtextual suggestion, in film after film, that even when evil is often stronger, cleverer, more charismatic and more ruthless than good, evil often destroys itself anyway because it’s more chaotic, more id-driven, than good, and thus more unstable. Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy and Fargo all revolve around criminal schemes that ultimately collapse beneath the weight of their participants’ accumulated selfishness, dishonesty and bravado (with help from a clever hero, or a deus ex machina). The buried narrative of most (though not all) Coen movies finds an orderly universe being plunged into chaos, then meticulously repaired. The repair work is often performed by disreputable outsider heroes (Jeff Lebowski, Marge in Fargo, Tom in Miller’s Crossing) who do good under the radar, so deftly (or instinctively) that society has no clue how much it owes them.
The Ladykillers is a Coen film par excellence. Yes, it’s a goofy, even frothy black comedy, a five-finger exercise from filmmakers who specialize in baroque contraptionist concertos. But it’s still a masterfully assembled picture on serious themes. More significantly, it contrasts good guys who believe in social order, a higher power and an eternal reward against fringe-dwelling bad guys who care for little besides money.
Tom Hanks’ criminal “mastermind,” Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, a pretentious dandy who dresses like Colonel Sanders and talks like a cross between James Lipton and Wile E. Coyote, supergenius, is obviously a devil figure, like the biker in Raising Arizona, or Robert Mitchum’s preacher in The Night of the Hunter. He first appears while decent church-going old lady Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is talking to a portrait of her late husband, whose supernatural presence is certified by a point-of-view shot that looks down on Marva’s orderly living room from above. Dorr’s arrival is heralded by a sudden gust of wind that makes a candle flame flicker, and a shot of Dorr’s spooky silhouette against the window glass of Marva’s front door. Under the guise of renting a room and securing rehearsal space for his Renaissance and Rococo ensemble, the bad guy assembles a team of lowlife experts to tunnel through the wall of Marva’s basement and steal money from the nearby vault of a casino. The casino’s employees include Dorr’s inside man, the idiot casino janitor Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), a foulmouthed cretin who wears a dollar-sign necklace.
Without spoiling any plot twists or visual surprises, suffice it to say that while the Coens deflate the pretensions of each major character, no matter what part of the moral spectrum they inhabit, the film ultimately expresses approval of Marva and disdain for Dorr and his band of scurvy dolts. The Coens’ opposition of good and evil, chaos and order is so basic it’s nearly Manichean. Marva’s pastor warns his parishioners that society is decaying from a lack of morality and its citizens are worshiping false idols and indulging “declining, backsliding, never-minding sinners!” The movie’s soundtrack, supervised by regular collaborator T. Bone Burnett, contrasts the materialistic, mostly secular culture of hip-hop (represented on the soundtrack by “Another Day, Another Dollar”) against the steadfast spirituality of gospel (represented by such on-the-nose titles as “Trouble of this World”).
Like Lillian Gish’s holy maternal figure in The Night of the Hunter, Marva is sweetly incorruptible, the rock of decency Dorr’s gang of sleazy nitwits must dash itself against. Building on the original Ealing comedy by raising the spiritual stakes, the Coens depict criminals as literal lowlifes who do their dirty work in basements and tunnels, turn on each other like rats, and in the end, deserve to be disposed of like garbage. The systematic extermination of Dorr and company seems to be carried out not by any one character, but by unseen supernatural forces– Marva’s dearly departed but still watchful husband, perhaps, or even God himself. The Ladykillers may be silly, but it takes morality seriously. One wishes more critics would accord the same privilege to the Coens’ films.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.