The Ladykillers

lady1Since it is going to turn out that there is similarity between this script and what I asked the Brothers for when I reviewed O Brother, it would be nice if I could say I reviewed this script next on purpose. Unfortunately, it was just another coincidence [a traveling one, perhaps?]. I decided to read The Ladykillers because I was absolutely sure that I was going to despise it. A survey of online responses to the film convinced me of what I thought when I first saw the trailer eleven years [or so] ago. This film and script had to be awful. I was going to hate it. I decided to review it solely because I wanted to get the review over with.

Necessity is the mother of choice far more often than invention.

Unbelievably, not only did I NOT hate it, I actually enjoyed it. A fair amount. Once again I find myself at odds with critics and audiences. Admittedly I didn’t look for long, but [the fact is] I found no one willing to endorse this movie. I am interested to see if my feelings about the merits of the script can be backed up with examples from the script. Am I the outlier, or are you?

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

[This is another script that I could only find on IMSDb. We will again have to make do with quotations sans their page numbers.]

Well, as has become par for these Coen Brothers courses, there is a lot of exposition in this script. Fortunately most all of it is crammed into a single scene of dialogue:

DORR
…This, gentlemen, is the Lady Luck,
gambling den, cash cow, Sodom of the
Mississippi delta — and the focus
of our little exercise. Here is
Orchard Street…

He is tracing a street that parallels the dotted
Rectangle extending from the boat. The street is lined by small
House icons on either side; the bow comes to rest on one of
Those icons.

DORR
…and here is the residence of Marva
Munson, the charming lady whom y’all
met moments ago. Gentlemen…

Bow taps emphasize:

DORR
…You… are… here. Now. This
brings us to this square…

The bow indicates it, and then withdraws.

Dorr uses the bow as a swagger stick to punctuate as he
Begins to pace.

DORR
…Gentlemen, I believe you are all
aware that the Solons of the State
of Mississippi, to wit, its
legislature, have decreed that no
gaming establishment shall be erected
within its borders upon dry land.
They may, however, legally float
upon any watercourse defining a state
boundary. But while the gambling
activity itself is restricted to
riverboats, no such restriction
applies to the functions ancillary
to this cash besotted bidnis. The
casino’s offices, locker rooms,
facilities to cook and clean, and
most importantly its counting houses the
reinforced, secret, and super
secure repositories of the lucre —
may all be situated… wherever.
Gawain — where is wherever?

GAWAIN
Say wha?

Dorr’s smug smile fades. Testily:

DORR
Where is the money?

GAWAIN
Oh. End of every shift pit boss brings
the cash down to the hold of the
ship in the locked cash box; once a
day all the cash boxes’re moved to
the counting room.

DORR
And where is the counting room?

GAWAIN
Well, uh… in that square there.
Where you pointing.

DORR
And what, to flog a horse that if
not at this point dead is in mortal
danger of expirin’, does the dotted
square represent?

Gawain hesitates, the question’s obviousness suggesting
To him some trick.

GAWAIN
…Offices. Underground.

Dorr’s eyes close. A smile of feline contentment curls
His lips. He murmurs:

DORR
Underground… Mmm… During the
casino’s hours of operation the door
to the counting room is fiercely
guarded, and the door itself is of
redoubtable Pittsburgh steel; when
the casino is closed the 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,
cosseted behind a five-inch-thick
steel portal, yes, but the walls,
gentlemen, the walls of that room,
are but humble masonry, behind which
is only the soft loamy soil deposited
over the centuries by Ol’ Man, the
meanderin’ Mississip’, as it fanned
its way back and forth across this
great alluvial plain…

He has pried a fistfull of dirt from the cellar wall.

DORR
…This earth.

He crumbles it, letting it sift to the floor, and then,
pleased with himself, he smiles.

DORR
…Any questions?

How about this for starters:

Would it have been possible to get all of this information into the script if it weren’t for this completely unnatural-only-there-for-the-sake-of-the-audience exposition? I’m inclined to say it would have been possible, but the Brothers would have had to work a lot harder for it. And like Christopher Nolan, The Brothers Coen do not like to work for their exposition. Perhaps we can forgive them their foible if they don’t repeat it often?

PANCAKE
All right, safety meeting, let’s
listen up. General, could you hand
me the prima cord and the compound
there. Before we set the charge we’ll
run through our procedure.

Various paraphernalia are laid out on the table.

The cat sits in a corner of the cellar, watching
Carefully and, it seems, listening attentively.

PANCAKE
…I have earplugs for whoever wants
them. Just wedge them in your ears.
Now here we have — not yet, Lump.

Lump stops putting in his earplugs.

PANCAKE
…Now. Prima cord. Gelatinite. C4.
Time comes, we pack the hole in the
rock with the C4 and insert two leads.
A…

He holds up one lead.

PANCAKE
…and B.
He holds up the other lead.

PANCAKE
…Charge comes from a battery that
is inside this plunger. Ordinary
auto battery, you can pick it up at
Sears, easiest thing in the world…

Other than those two examples, the script is fairly clean. The first scene in the cellar is ridiculously long and almost as bad as though it were printed in a newspaper [or part of a google search result], something must be subtracted for that.

8 out of 10 points.

Part B) My oh my, is there ever subtext in this script. You will remember that I used the end of my O Brother review to be wistful about what might have been:

“I am very happy that My Brothers chose to say something about institutionalized Southern Racism. I just wish they had done it with all the emotional force with which they are often capable.”

I believe The Ladykillers, while still being a “comedy”, makes a much better attempt at saying something significant about race in a less abstract way than O Brother. There is outright accusation:

GUDGE
I don’t care how big her ass was,
MacSam. You’re fired.

GAWAIN
Say what?
GUDGE
There is no fraternizing with
customers on the Lady Luck. Clean
out your locker.

GAWAIN
But Gudge–-

GUDGE
Get out of here. You’re fired.

GAWAIN
You can’t fire me. I sue your ass!

GUDGE
Sue me? For what?

GAWAIN
Sue you for fuckin’ punitive damages,
man!

GUDGE
Punitive damages.

GAWAIN
Ya damn skippy. I know you firin’ my
ass ’cause I’m black!

GUDGE
Everyone on the custodial staff is
black, MacSam. Your replacement’s
gonna be black. His replacement will
no doubt be black.

In which Gudge [and by extension dominant society] finds itself innocent of a specific charge of racism by referencing an omnipresent and perpetual GENERAL racism. This would be like if I said to Gawain:

BARISH
I can’t be being racist toward you.

GAWAIN
Why not?

BARISH
I voted for Obama.

Gawain looks at Barish as though this explains nothing.

BARISH
Not just the first time… when it was cool.

What I love so much about the subtext in this scene is that Gudge is well within his rights to fire Gawain, AND Gawain is also correct in accusing Gudge of firing him because he’s black. Let’s first establish the former and then we’ll circle back for the latter.

Exhibit A: “Fraternizing” with customers IS against the Lady Luck rules of employment. [We can deduce this from the fact that Gawain does not dispute the indictment—just the reason it was delivered.]

Exhibit B: Gawain did “fraternize” with a customer. We saw this in the previous scene. [For the record, Gawain is even guiltier in his humanity than he is in his employment. I’ll excerpt some of what he says to the customer:

GAWAIN
You don’t need to be gamblin’, honey,
you lookin’ at a sure thing. They
call me Mr. 21, baby, ’cause that’s
how I measure up. I am the original
black Jack, honey, accept no
substitutions. You can pull my lever
all day long, sweet mama, I ain’t
never gonna come up lemons. That’s
right, sugar, you can blow on my
dice any ol’ time.

Objectification much?]

Exhibit C: The Lady Luck must have an employee handbook which sanctions termination for “fraternization”. [We can deduce this from the fact that Gawain does not dispute the appropriateness of the verdict, he simply objects that he is being singled out for sentencing because he is black. For sure, Gawain signed a copy of the handbook ackkowledging he read it, and would abide by it, as a condition of his employment. Based on past voting patterns in Mississippi, I am going to guess [wildly] that the Double Crooked/Humpbacked Letter State is decisively “Right to Work”. In other words, Gawain is out of luck.]

Therefore, and based on the evidence presented, it is fair to convict our young black male offender in our makeshift court of blind commerce. He did what the In-Charge White Guy said he did. It was against the rules. And he knew, beforehand, what the rules were.

It might be a proverbial open and shut case except for the fact that the Brothers are always tinkering with the subtext to leave [exactly] no doors open or shut. In a Coen Brothers script every door is ajar. Consider the following:

lady2INT. CASINO – GUDGE’S OFFICE – DAY

CLOSE ON A BOX OF CHOCOLATES

The box is being pulled open.

GUDGE (O.S.)
What the hell is this?

WIDER
shows Gawain in Mr. Gudge’s office as Gudge, behind the
desk, looks at the gift-wrapped box.

GAWAIN
It’s just my way of sayin’, well,
goddamnit, I don’t know what it’s
like walkin’ in your shoes, bein’
all tightass and all, and you don’t
know what it’s like to walk in my
shoes, but, well…

Gudge is opening a card that was inside the box. Its
Floral front says in gold script, “I’m Sorry… If I hurt your
feelings… “

GAWAIN
…You know, there’s the custodian,
and then there’s the man inside the
custodian, y’understand what I’m
sayin’…

Gudge opens the card. Inside is a hundred-dollar bill.

GAWAIN
…and that man has needs, dig, and
I guess those needs, Mr. Gudge, which
they usually involve women with big
asses, well those motherfuckin’ needs
sometimes well up over the custodian
like the motherfuckin’ Johnstown
Flood. But my point is it ain’t gonna
happen again. Not if it’s humanly
possible…

GUDGE
Hmm…

GAWAIN
But Jesus, if you’d seen the ass on
that girl, Mr. Gudge, you’d a wanted
her sitting on your face too.

GUDGE
Well, we’re all human.

GAWAIN
Ya damn skippy.

GUDGE
This apology buys you a one-week
probationary period. Stay away from
the customers, MacSam.

This line from Gudge about “we’re all human” is just delicious. After Gawain pays Gudge he becomes “human”, before Gawain pays Gudge he’s just a black guy who can’t follow the rules.

I truly believe this subtextual setup and reveal is among the best I’ve yet read. It can even be lent a metaphorical hue if one interprets “the bribe” as Gawain buying his humanity from his white owne… I mean manager.

This racial subtext will loom even larger when we get to theme:

10 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

Once again we must deal with a script from the IMSDb. This means I can’t be accurate with the page count; I will have to approximate. I [slightly] arbitrarily denounce this line as our page 10 break:

DORR
You see, madam, I am currently on
sabbatical from the institution where
I teach — the University of
Mississippi at Hattiesburg. I am
taking a year off to indulge my
passion — I don’t believe that is
too strong a word — for the music
of the Renaissance. I perform in —
and have the honor of directing — a
period instrument ensemble that
performs at Renaissance fairs and
other cultural fora…

This line gets Dorr right up to the… door of the room he wants to rent from Mrs. Munson.

Prior to this we have a sustained period of descriptive ambiance setting:

The COVERAGE is a little rough, coarse-grained; along
With the overbearing score it almost suggests an industrial
Film rather than a feature.

Which is [as best as I can remember] the most number of pages which scroll by without a single line of that infamous Coen Brothers dialogue. After this, we meet Mrs. Munson as she complains to Sheriff Wyner about her neighbor Weemack Funthes and his:

MRS. MUNSON
Hippity-hop music!

Mrs. Munson then returns home where she strikes up a conversation with the portrait of her dead husband, Othar. A conversation which gets interrupted by:

A gust of wind hums under the eaves; the candles below
The portrait flicker. As Mrs. Munson looks around the room,
vaguely towards the ceiling, sensing a negative aura, the
cat arches its back and hisses.

At this moment the doorbell rings.

At the door, of course, is:

DORR
I certainly did and I do apologize
no end. Allow me to present myself,
uh, formally: Goldthwait Higginson
Dorr, Ph.D.

Pickles [Mrs. Munson’s cat] escapes prior to the introduction, a fact for which Mrs. Munson blames Dorr. So intense is her belief in his culpability for the cat’s escape, she requires Dorr to climb the tree Pickles scampered up after achieving his freedom. Dorr finally acquiesces, after Mrs. Munson insists she will have to call the police to save Pickles if Dorr won’t do it himself. This results in the cat’s rescue [implied] after Dorr’s unceremonious return to earth.

These “10” pages resolve with Dorr drinking Mrs. Munson’s tea while discussing the possibility of his renting her room.

Considering how little story there is in these first 10, it’s kind of remarkable that I breezed through them with as little effort as I did. I feel like the Brothers were going for style over substance… like the whole story were just a writing experiment in tone and mood. Since they are good writers, it [eventually] worked… for me. In spite of my ideas about screenplay structure, I became invested in the destination and cared [less than I usually do] about the route. In other words, I wanted to make sense of all the over-the-top foreboding that accompanied Dorr’s arrival in Mrs. Munson’s life.

The line between villain and hero is mysteriously blurry in these first 10. Mrs. Munson, the little old lady who lives down the road, does not seem as sweet and innocent as we would like her to be if she is to be our protagonist. Once again, you get the feeling the Brothers are mucking around with the equivalence principle we insist on using to peg the lead character.

The “good guy” is the one that is most innocent.

I was intrigued. The Brothers had thrown me from the safety of my critical perch. I could tell, with certainty, they were going to make me think… again.

15 out of 20 points.

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