Coen Bros: The Ladykillers

THE LITTLE MAN: Goldthwait Higginson Dorr is what you’d call a “character.” He dresses a century out of fashion, wears Colonel Sanders (or Robert Altman?) facial hair, has crooked fake teeth and a weird, perverse giggle. He’s a self-described “criminal mastermind” (although we hear nothing of his past escapades) and his goal in The Ladykillers is to steal a bunch of money from a riverboat casino.

The crew hired to back up this bizarre, only-in-the-movies protagonist had better be similarly detailed and idiosyncratic. Who do we have? We have Garth Pancake, an aging hippie explosives expert with a hidden capitalist streak, who seems interesting enough at first. We have The General, an ex-Vietcong tunneling expert who doesn’t say much but can keep a lit cigarette in his mouth for indefinite periods of time.

Then we have Lump, who’s a big dumb guy. How will the Coens, those most original, interesting writers, make Lump fresh and new? Well, they decide to make him bigger and dumber than humanly possible, a wheezing mouth-breather incapable of forming a sentence. Which isn’t very interesting, but at least it’s a solid choice.

Then there’s Gawain MacSam, who’s a skinny, trash-talking black kid, played by Marlon Wayans, who makes his living making fun of characters just like this. And I’ve got to say, I’m flummoxed. I’ve watched The Ladykillers three times now and I have yet to find anything original, interesting, fresh or specific about Gawain. He swears a lot, he’s bored, he mouths off, he thinks about sex, he’s a masher — in a movie full of characters we don’t see very often onscreen, Gawain is a character we see all the time, and is not rendered in any particularly interesting or original way. He’s that rarity in Coen movies, a generic character. (In Intolerable Cruelty the generic characters formed a whole substrata of the cast, and thus balanced each other out more.) There are odd moments of dead space and negative energy in The Ladykillers, something I’ve never encountered in Coen movies before, and most of them seem to revolve around scenes with Gawain. Where there should be some kind of spur there seems to be only regurgitation of cliche, as though the Coens weren’t exactly sure what to do with the character.

(The Coens perhaps sensed that they had dropped the ball with Gawain — he’s the only character who gets a flashback sequence, a move which, I think, is meant to give him three dimensions, but succeeds only in giving him two, because his flashback scene is actually just another cliche.)

(I know that Gawain’s lack ofinteresting characteristics is not the fault of Marlon Wayans, because Wayans can be a wonderful actor — his performance in Requiem For a Dream is revelatory.)

Facing this motley crew is antagonist Marva Munson, who, although a stock character her own self, is brought to vivid life by Irma P. Hall, who is smashing in the role and the number 1 reason for watching it. Reviewers for some reason never mention Hall, who gives, I think, one of the handful of great Coen performances. I think because she so perfectly embodies the part people consider her some kind of a found object, but for my money Irma Hall in The Ladykillers is as good a match between actor and role as Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski and Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men.

MUSIC: The Ladykillers is, in some ways, almost a sequel to O Brother Where Art Thou. You can hear the pitch meeting, where the Coens tell the Disney executives “This movie will do for gospel music what O Brother did for folk! And that movie didn’t even have a plot!” It’s set in the same state, sixty or so years later, and in many ways it’s as though the Coens said “Let’s check in with that location of O Brother and see how those folks turned out, after the flood and the modernization and whatnot.” Or, rather, as some here have pointed out, maybe the Coens, looking at O Brother, realized that they left out a huge chunk of story in their portrait of the Deep South (namely, black people) and decided to set forth to correct that imbalance.

Gospel music is almost a second antagonist in The Ladykillers — it is music we associate with Marva, but also music we associate with the garbage heap in the middle of the Mississippi river, where most of the movie’s main characters end up. The garbage heap represents Death (the Coens underline the symbolism by having not just a raven on the bridge, and not just a gargoyle in the form of a reaper, but a raven perched on a reaper — as though they thought, for the sake of a studio picture, they had to triple-underline their symbols).

And yet the river below the bridge does not seem to lead to hell, exactly. The garbage island in the river glows with divine light in the title sequence, and all the bridge sequences are scored with the most lovely, powerful gospel music. The garbage island is, I’d say, something else — divine retribution. The God of The Ladykillers, in spite of being Baptist, is a very Old Testament kind of God, a God of vengeance and righteous anger. This God does not forgive, he attacks (he “smotes,” in the words of the Baptist minister, an authoritative, electrifying performance by George Anthony Bell). It’s not just Marva who’s against Goldthwait, it’s God. And his music.

The antithesis to the gospel music in The Ladykillers is what Marva calls “hippety-hop,” music seen by Marva to be profane, soul-degrading music. I think this is why Gawain is given so much emphasis in the movie — “his” music is the antithesis to Marva’s music, and thus they are natural enemies. And yet Gawain is not the protagonist, Goldthwait is — and he listens to Renaissance music (although he doesn’t really — he just spouts a bunch of long-winded gibberish about it and sounds authoritative — more on which later).

The idea of pitting Gospel against “hippety-hop” is a good one, in fact I’d say it’s the strongest one in the movie. But then why not make Gawain the protagonist (and interesting)? This is one of a number of places The Ladykillers presents a good idea and then fails to develop it, a relative anomaly in the Coen world.

(It occurs to me that perhaps Gawain was, at one point, the protagonist of the movie, an idea far stronger than having Goldthwait be the protagonist.  I wonder if that was their original concept, and then the studio people told them they could get Tom Hanks to play “the Alec Guiness part,” and also get themselves a budget of $70 million?)

Sociological,economic, racial and educational disparity among the characters gives the weight to all the conflicts in The Ladykillers, and the movie seems to be saying that, no matter who you are, no matter where you’re from or what your politics are, no matter what is the color of your skin or your level of intellect, everyone ends up on the same garbage island.

But wait, that’s not quite it either — it is only the heathen criminals who end up on the garbage island — specifically because they would, literally, rather die than attend a church service. This seems to support the idea of a New Testament God with a strict fundamentalist attitude — you must be a “good Christian” to avoid the garbage heap (The General, the movie explicitly states, is a Buddhist — so he must die). I find this facile, moralistic aspect of The Ladykillers interesting but unconvincing — like a lot of the movie, it doesn’t feel like it’s been thought all the way through.

(It is a sign of how fallen our world is that the garbage barges that service the island seem to run non-stop on a 24-hour basis, transporting corrupt souls to the afterworld.)

RACE: The racism of Mississippi that O Brother glided over is examined more closely in The Ladykillers, to intriguing but ultimately confusing ends. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s hangs over the movie like a ghost — Pancake lords it over Gawain because he fought Bull Connor and says that Gawain has a duty to improve himself since white liberals like Pancake fought so hard for his freedoms. The General comes from another area of the 60s, of course, Vietnam, and Lump is too stupid to stand for much of anything. Perhaps it’s symbolic that Goldthwait dresses like a plantation owner and quotes Edgar Allan Poe — Poe was the son of a slave-trader and, during his stint as a soldier, manned Fort Moultrie in South Carolina — the way-station for all incoming slave ships.

Does Goldthwait, with his weird clothes, backward ways and romantic manner of speech, represent some sort of ghost of the antebellum south? If so, why does he treat Marva with such respect and kindness? (It is not his idea to kill her in Act III, it’s The General’s — and Goldthwait never comes anywhere near to killing her himself.) Midway through Act III, he tries to corrupt Marva, talk her into taking a portion of the stolen money and donating it to charity — is that his function in the story? His he an antebellum ghost-devil sent to tempt Marva into a life of crime?

EDUCATION: Goldthwait puts Gawain in his place by saying he has a Ph.D. Gawain responds by saying he has a G.E.D. Education, who has it, who lacks it, and who has done what with it is a vital concern to The Ladykillers. Marva is, herself, uneducated, but she believes strongly in education, so much so that she donates money to Bob Jones university.

Now then: what is Bob Jones University? Funny you should ask. The movie never talks about it, but Bob Jones University was founded by, yes, Bob Jones, a fundamentalist Christian evangelist — and a straight-up racist, who helped put Ku Klux Klan members in high political offices and campaigned for segregation until the day he died.

Why does Marva support Bob Jones University? Because it’s a Christian evangelist school. She has no sense of history, she has only a pie-in-the-sky vision of divinity. The ugly little joke at the center of The Ladykillers seems to be that nice, sweet, saintly Marva Munson is, at the end of the day, just another ignorant southern black woman, too stupid to know what’s best for her. A fortune in stolen money lands in her lap, and she goes and turns it over to a racist institution. I have no idea what to make of this plot point, but it leaves a bitter, non-Coenesque aftertaste that I dislike.

(Is Goldthwait’s function, in fact, to manipulate events so that Marva ends up supporting a racist institution? Is that why he appears as an antebellum ghost?)

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: Law-enforcement personnel in The Ladykillers are lazy, cheerful and unhelpful. The fact that the sheriff is black and played by an actor named George Wallace has got to be some kind of cosmic joke.

I HAVE A QUESTION: It’s unclear when The Ladykillers takes place. There’s no overwhelming reason it can’t be taking place in 2004, except that the movie begins with Marva complaining to the sheriff about a neighbor who’s bought himself a “blaster,” that is, one of these. It’s not impossible, but it seems highly unlikely to me that any self-respecting young man would be listening to hip-hop or any other music on a ghetto-blaster in 2004. Especially when the song he plays over and over is “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” a 1990 song by A Tribe Called Quest. It makes perfect sense that a young man would purchase a ghetto blaster to listen to A Tribe Called Quest on in 1990, the year hip-hop exploded, but then, midway through the movie Gawain makes a pointed reference to Lorena Bobbitt, who cut off her husband’s penis in 1993.

If, then, The Ladykillers takes place in 1993 or 1994, Bob Jones University would still be prohibiting interracial dating on their campus, a practice they continued until 2000. It is possible that, if the movie is set in 2004, that Marva has been won over by the new dawn of racial tolerance at Bob Jones University — but I doubt it. Partly because it is a rarity for a Coen movie to take place in the present day, and partly because no one has any cell phones.

(Marva also refers to the current day as “The Age of Montel” — Montel Williams‘s career was just breaking in 1991.)

THE MELTING POT: Goldthwait is a white southerner, Pancake is a white northerner. The General is, as mentioned, Vietnamese (who has no love for black people), Lump is white but very, very stupid, and Gawain is an uneducated, working-class black man. The sheriff’s department has two employees, one black and one white, both of whom seem nice enough. Marva is, of course, black, and so are all her friends.

Where are the Jews? Only one is mentioned by ethnicity — the “Jew with a guitar” who sang at Marva’s church during the 1960s (another reference to fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan?). But of course another Jew exerts his influence over The Ladykillers — Jesus, whom Marva loves dearly, but whose teachings are given a definite Old Testament sting (the Baptist minister goes out of his way to discuss the Israelites and God “smoting” them).

HOW’S THE MOVIE? Despite its flaws, I find much intriguing and worthwhile in The Ladykillers. In some ways I find it to be a more successful movie than Intolerable Cruelty, or at least a more “Coenesque” movie. There are a lot of interesting ideas that are evoked and examined. The trouble is, they aren’t developed in satisfying ways and they are saddled with some physical comedy I find quite lame in both concept and execution. I have little patience for Pancake’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the dead-husband’s-changing portrait is way too cute, and The General’s cigarette-hiding trick grows old fast.

Finally, I’ve got to say, I find the architecture of Act III of The Ladykillers woefully uninspired. Just as the movie is supposed to be charging toward a satisfying climax, it backs off and presents a bunch of lame, repetitive set pieces. It’s like the Coens set up a perfectly workable situation, then got to the end of Act II and ran out of steam.

JOEL: So they decide to kill the lady. And then what happens?
ETHAN: And then, I don’t know, I guess they all kill each other.
JOEL: How?
ETHAN: They, they, I don’t know man, they kill each other. We’ll think of something. We’re the Coen Brothers, man, we’re the greatest screenwriters working.
hit counter html code


10 Responses to “Coen Bros: The Ladykillers”
  1. mcbrennan says:

    Have you seen the Ealing Ladykillers? It’s one of my favorite films, but I haven’t seen the Coen version in its entirety–caught it about a third of the way in. I liked it, and I thought they were weirdly (perhaps excessively) faithful to the original, but I also thought it was odd that the Coens would remake something at all (O Brother, I suppose, was kind of a remake of an imaginary movie, but…) I’m wondering how you think the two Ladykillers compare, and whether the flaws you (and others) see in the Coens version are because they stuck to the plot of the original or because they didn’t.

    • Todd says:

      I watched the Ealing Ladykillers about twelve years ago. Why, you ask? Because I was up for the gig of writing a remake at Disney, that’s why. I enjoyed the movie, but I honestly had no idea of how to remake it as a Disney picture, and I certainly could never have come up with a heist on a riverboat and a character like Marva Munson. I don’t know how many other writers worked on the project before and after the Coens, but I detect, in spite of everything, too much studio in the final product.

  2. craigjclark says:

    What, no mention of Mountain Girl?

    Personally, I think the reason this doesn’t feel like a Coen Bros. film (and is a little half-baked, to boot) is the fact that it was written for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct. They must have written the script as a favor to Sonnenfeld (who had been the cinematographer on their first few films) or they were hurting for cash after the box office disappointment or Hudsucker. Either way, when it landed back in their laps I don’t know why they decided to go ahead and direct it themselves. That’s two years of their career they’re never getting back.

    • Todd says:

      It’s my understanding that they had another project going that fell through at the last moment, as projects often do, and had the chance to do The Ladykillers instead, and faced with the chance of “not having a movie out” vs. “having a movie out,” they chose the latter.

      Everything about the project feels like they were consciously “dumbing down” their approach in order to achieve some sort of commercial goal. I like to think that they considered The Ladykillers their Spartacus, that is, a movie that really isn’t “them,” but which they thought would be a no-problem commercial smash, a comedy starring, as it does, the two-time Oscar-winning holder of the box-office crown.

  3. curt_holman says:

    Tom Hanks performance in The Ladykillers cracks me up. There’s a moment when he starts laughing in mid-sentence, and it sort of hisses through his teeth, and the memory of that always amuses me.

    I’m not sure why the they-all-kill-each-other third act feels more natural in the original Ladykillers than in the Coens’ remake.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “the dead-husband’s-changing portrait is way too cute”

    And stolen from ‘Mouse Hunt'(which, for my money, is the best Coen Bros film not made by the Coen Bros).

    “It’s my understanding that they had another project going that fell through at the last moment.”

    An adaptation of James Dickey’s ‘To the White Sea’, starring Brad Pitt, I believe.

  5. teamwak says:

    And stolen from ‘Mouse Hunt'(which, for my money, is the best Coen Bros film not made by the Coen Bros).

    I couldnt agree more.

    So it wasn’t just me, Wayans character did seem from the wrong movie.

    I wonder if the original kill-them-all third act worked better in the Ealing version because Alec Guiness and Peter Sellars were playing the roles? 😉