The Coen Project Part 11: The Ladykillers

The Ladykillers is technically the worst-reviewed movie in the Coen Brother canon: it comes in at 55% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, barely edged out by The Hudsucker Proxy at 56%. The self-indulgent Proxy deserved all the critical flak it got, but I’m declaring The Ladykillers officially underrated. A comedy that takes place mostly inside one house over the course of a few days, it’s the smallest and least ambitious of the filmography so far, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do with aplomb. It returns to the Coens’ core competency: idiots doing stupid stuff. Set in Mississippi, it’s also a return to the American South, one of the most important locales in the Coen-verse.

Incidentally, The Ladykillers is the first remake in the Coens’ catalog: it’s based on a 1955 British black comedy of the same name starring Alec Guiness. The bones of the story are left unchanged: a group of criminals pose as classical musicians in order to use an old woman’s basement as the starting point for a tunnel-based heist scheme. The lady catches on, and therefore must be killed — hence The Ladykillers.

The Coens take the liberty of replacing all of the characters with weirdos their own invention, and this is where their version shines. Yes, these characters are one-dimensional, but this is essentially a live-action cartoon — having five fully fleshed out human beings would not be fitting for the tone nor the scope. 

The Ladykillers embraces the heist trope of the Team Assemblage Sequence, introducing each member by demonstrating their heist-relevant attributes. Gawain (Marlon Wayans) has no skills other than being a custodian at the target of the operation, a floating casino. Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is an annoyingly optimistic “jack of all trades” who can handle the necessary explosives, hampered only by a persistent case of irritable bowel syndrome. A Vietnamese man known only as “The General” (Tzi Ma) is a functionally mute tunneling expert. College football reject Lump (Ryan Hurst) is the “blunt instrument” by which obstacles to the team’s ends will be removed.

At the center of it all is Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D., a professor of classics who appears to have walked off of the pages of a William Faulkner novel. Played by Tom Hanks in an impressive Coen-verse debut, Dorr talks his way out of every situation as though he’s reciting poetry. He also actually recites poetry. People like G.H. Dorr no longer exist in reality, if they ever did, but it doesn’t matter. The character is a vehicle for fun and ridiculous dialogue, simultaneously over-the-top academic and over-the-top Southern. Here’s Dorr describing the particulars of the building they’re attempting to rob: 

The door itself is of redoubtable Pittsburgh steel. When the casino closes this entire underground complex is locked up, and the armed guard retreats to the casino’s main entrance. There, then, far from the guard, reposes the money, behind a five-inch-thick steel portal, yes. But the walls… the walls are but humble masonry behind which is only the soft, loamy soil deposited over centuries by the Old Man, the meanderin’ Mississippi, as it fanned its way back and forth across the great alluvial plain, leaving earth.

Revisiting The Ladykillers after seeing The Post in theaters reminded me of how broad Tom Hanks’ skill set is. This is maybe his most mannered and directly comedic role, and he owns the character with as much commitment and specificity as any comic actor. 

The Ladykillers can be thought of as a companion piece to the Coens’ other Southern-set comedy, O Brother Where Art Thou.  It technically takes place in the present day, but it has a similar vintage feel as the depression-era O Brother. Both films are steeped in religious themes, however ironically — The Ladykillers finds its group of robbers debating the ethicality of different methods of murdering their devout elderly host. Mirroring the old-timey spirituals of O Brother, the evildoings are underscored by gospel music selections by producer T. Bone Burnett — The Soul Stirrer’s “O Brother Let us Go Back To God” is a repeated theme, played every time someone’s body is unceremoniously dumped onto a trash barge. 

Stray Observations:

  • As with Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens were originally only hired to write the script for The Ladykillers.  Barry Sonnenfeld, their cinematographer on Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona, was slated to direct but had to back out of the job.
  • This is the second Coen Film, after The Big Lebowski, where the plot to some degree hinges on a severed digit, in this case Mr. Pancake’s finger. 
  • The obligatory repeated line also goes to J.K. Simmon’s Mr. Pancake: “Easiest thing in the world!”
  • Dorr is the first character in the Coen-verse to speak the phrase “would that it were so simple”. I can’t wait for Hail Caeser. 

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