Today we resume our review of the universally disliked Coen Brothers script The Ladykillers. If you missed part one, here is a link. The script is available on IMSDb.
3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)
Part A) This script occupies The Goldilocks Space between the reveal-saturated [A Serious Man] and the reveal-starved [True Grit]. The rhythm of this story is close enough to perfect that I might be able to use it to unpack THE most subjective word remaining in my five question approach—
What, exactly, does “suitable” mean?
For a moment I almost convince myself to attempt this, but then I remember that “my approach” is unilaterally opposed to the empirical. If I ever unpack “suitable” it will have to be from rationalist luggage. [Plus, I did quite a bit of unpacking in my Bowdlerizing Kant.] My quest for greater understanding subverted by my deference to the critical analogue of a Chigurhian Rule, I disallow The LadyKillers to occupy The Goldilocks Space on principle.
We’ll save that nugget for a different day’s sluice.
If I also disallow myself to distract myself, I can say that of all the setups and reveals that occur, my favorite [by miles] concerns the exceptionally long time the Brothers take setting up and revealing their characters. Each of them is given a scene in which their Agency is questioned. Each responds to that challenge.
Mrs. Munson is introduced by way of Sherriff Wyner. She wants Wyner to visit the Funthes household and deliver a warning about the excessive noise of Weemack’s “hippity-hop” music. Sherriff Wyner agrees to Mrs. Munson’s demand. Her agency is affirmed by her challenge.
We meet Dorr when he visits Mrs. Munson to see about renting her room. Although Mrs. Munson makes it really hard on Dorr to get what he wants [She requires him to rescue Pickles.] He does prevail—he gains access to her root cellar.
Next we meet Gawain at the Casino where he is being instructed in the Fine Arts of casino sanitation by none other than the hippity-hoppity, Weemack Funthes. Weemack informs Gawain:
…You wouldn’t believe this shit,
sometimes even out here on the casino
floor you gonna find sanitary napkin
shit stuck there, Tucks, I don’t
know what the fuck people do while
they’re gambling here man.
Gawain is so far from human agency in this scene that he actually DOES nothing. He is being trained… to empty trash. It’s not your average trash, either. It is particularly trashy trash.
After Gawain we meet Pancake as he attempts to control the special effects in a dogfood commercial. He is terrible at his job. He manages to suffocate his canine star in an antique gas mask AND slice his hand open when he tries to cut off said mask. The scene ends with Pancake giving the dog mouth to mouth resuscitation. The humiliation of this character rivals what was done to Gawain.
Next we meet Hudson on a football field. We follow him through three snaps. He gets steamrolled three straight times. The final hit results in an interception, and return for a touchdown, by the opposing team. In other words, Hudson’s football Agency is very, very low.
Hudson’s athletic incompetence funnels directly into a donut store robbery. Here we meet The General. For reasons which are never clear, he is the only character to display competence. He manages to achieve exactly what he sets out to achieve when his introduction scene begins; he keeps his store from being robbed.
Look, this fuckin’ thing, it ain’t
complicated. You give us all the
fuckin money, you don’t get shot in
the head, you make more donuts, get
more money. That’s how it works,
The General stares at him. As with his wife, none of it
Seems to register; unlike his wife, he seems unperturbed.
Give us the money!
He is pointing the gun directly at the General’s head.
…You got three fuckin’ seconds.
You understand one-two-three? I’m
gonna count one-two-three and then
shoot. Okay? Three sec–- huh!
The General has swung his fist up to hook two fingers
Inside the youth’s nostrils. His gun clatters to the floor. The
fingers are way, way up his nose. Only one knuckle shows
on each finger.
The youth is staring cross-eyed at his own nose.
His friend is also stupefied.
His fingers are way the fuck up my
GET… YA FINGAS… OUT… THE
The General still impassively sucks on his cigarette. The
first youth is on the verge of tears:
I think they’re in my brain, man…
He raises his gun to start firing.
As he does so the General uses his hook-hold on the other
youth’s nose to slam his head backwards, down into some
The door opens and a customer walks in, a semi-elderly
Lady with a cane.
Youth #2, eyes rolling, wildly swings to cover the door,
then back to the General who has his friend’s head
pressed into the Fancies, then uncertainly over to the Vietnamese
woman who is loudly yelling at him in Vietnamese.
Cigarette still dangling from his lower lip, the General
calmly plucks a pot of coffee from the coffee warmer and
tosses it into Youth #2’s face.
Youth #2 screams.
[I wonder if the inspiration for this scene, in terms of fingers in nostrils, doesn’t come from a novel in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. If I ever get the chance to interview the Brothers, I will ask them.]
The Brothers use the first fourth of their screenplay to set up the following facts about their characters:
The General—He is courageous to the point of being brash, decisive, open to violence to solve his problems and, without a doubt, the most efficacious person introduced.
Mrs. Munson—She is irritating in a mostly harmless way. She gets what she wants by being irritating until her conversational adversary yields.
Dorr—He imagines himself to be silver-tongued enough to get his way. He does get his way, but only after a long list of concessions.
Gawain—So little personal force that he is forced to pick up the waste of society.
Pancake—Presents as competent, but is reduced to giving a dog mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Hudson—His physical presence is of no utility to him. He is literally obliterated on the football field.
What I like about this extended set-up is how it crosses and crisscrosses throughout the script. On the one hand there is Mrs. Munson versus the gang of casino robbers, on the other, there is the gang of casino robbers against each other. Twenty-five percent of the script is [probably] way too much story topography to give to a single set-up. Unless you [write like the brothers and] make this single set-up get paid-off over and over.
10 out of 10 points.
Part B) Another Coen Brothers script and again there is possible confusion over who should get the protagonist role. I could make a case for either Mrs. Munson or Dorr. [Dorr could be nominated as the protagonist himself, or as the stand-in for the entire group of thieves]. My vote goes to Dorr… and Dorr alone.
I choose the door behind which only Dorr stands because of the fact that he has a clearly defined engine. Mrs. Munson does not.
In this case the act of answering the engine question gives us the protagonist answer. We know Dorr wants to successfully rob the casino with an ingenious plan. Mrs. Munson wants… Weemack to quit playing the hippity-hop music so loud?
The Ladykillers is not another No Country for Old Men. You have to look at Moss and Chigurgh very closely to decide which one wants what he wants more. The blurred lines in this picture come from the fact that Mrs. Munson isn’t easy to root for. No one would ever accuse Dorr of being likeable—he’s kind of a pompous ass. But, compared to Mrs. Munson, he’s a treat.
In any case, I elect to go with Dorr as the protag. I peg his engine as demonstrating his superior intellect by pulling off an ingenious caper. The Brothers have done a fine job matching the complexity of the heist Dorr wants to pull off to the overinflation of Dorr’s opinion of himself.
5 out of 5 points.
Part C) I determine the pinch point to arrive from the lips of Gawain:
I know how to discomplicate it! Put
a cap in the old lady’s head! Then
everything simple again!
Mrs. Munson has ruined their heist by leaving the church gospel recital early. She has demanded that all the stolen money be replaced, and that Dorr and his gang attend church as penance for their sin. Gawain is the first to suggest that the most reasonable way out of The Mrs. Munson predicament is just to kill Mrs. Munson.
From this page forward, the script does funnel toward its climax:
5 out of 5 points.
Part D) When I reviewed O Brother, I decided that script did not have a theme. Instead, I found that it used its pages to tell us something about the impropriety of being nostalgic for an American Past that was so flawed in its Unequal treatment of its citizens, any claims toward a retreating pride in an American Exceptionalism were [quite possibly] racist in principle.
This is why I implied [earlier] it was something of a Traveling Coincidence that I happened to read The Ladykillers after O Brother. These scripts have exceedingly similar aspirations. They both want to tell us something about the state of race relations in the US. O Brother explicitly defined our racist past, while The Ladykillers seeks to explain the reasons why racism still exists in the present.
NIGGAZ! I don’t wanna say the word.
I won’t say it twice, I’ll tell you
that. I say it one time.
In the course a swearin’ out my
NIGGAZ! Two thousand years after
Jesus! Thirty years after Martin
Luther King! The age of Montel! Sweet
lord a-mercy, izzat where we at?
I don’t like this when Tarantino does it, and I’m not much of a fan when the Coen Brothers do it either. The bit with Gawain and Gudge has my full support, but I’m not sure our solidly Mid-Western Brothers are the ones to be making Mrs. Munson’s point. Besides there is the counter-argument that hippity-hop’s reclassification of the word has made it LESS able to be used pejoratively by White people. At any rate, the argument Mrs. Munson is having with herself is not sufficient in depth to justify its being put into her mouth by the Brothers. And yes, I am aware that playing with words is a route toward changing Culture—that idea forms the cornerstone of my aesthetic beliefs. Therefore, were this the only instance the Brothers made at engaging the Culture, I would ostracize them from the Joel Barish canon. Fortunately it is not a solitary smoke ring in the dark.
To see what they are doing, you have to examine the structure of the story from its side. The literal events which comprise the plot points are incidental to the theme. We can make nothing of the fact that Mrs. Munson lives and all the invaders of her home [including the Implicitly Southern Dorr] die. It will be of no use to us to look for a meaning in the characters themselves, because the characteristics of the characters are irrelevant. This is a story in which a deceitful White Male Culture attempts to manipulate the resources of the underprivileged people which surround it.
Another critic might try and make much of the fact that Dorr is White and Male, while Mrs. Munson is Black and FEMALE. There is the possibility for a very fine gender based interpretation [which would augment and complement the race-based interpretation]. I believe, however, the Brothers are not aiming [specifically] at gender based targets.
To support this I offer that Dorr manipulates each member of his gang of robbers to the same degree that he attempts to manipulate Mrs. Munson. Collectively, these MEN are a group [and, for sure, they use their membership in their gender to their collective advantage] but they are a group with a definitive hierarchy. They are a group ruled by an Old White Guy.
Since the heist is successful, but it does not result in any character being enriched, we may conclude that:
Western Civilization plunders whatever it encounters, without prejudice.
This is a theme I can endorse. I am happy that My Brothers found a way to make this statement since it needs to be made. [“Needs” in that last statement should be read as an Ethical Ought.] Unfortunately, I left the script bothered by the characterization of Mrs. Munson. She is [at least to me] irritating. She gives the Casino’s millions to Bob Jones University [an error in duplicate since she was directed to do this by the Leading Government Authority in her story]. In other words, she is… [god forbid] deserving of her persecution? At the very least, she has no “heroic” qualities. [Another reason in the argument supporting my choice of her as antagonist.]
Look, I don’t want to be all Dostoyevsky in Poor Folk on you, or Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, or Dostoyevsky in The Idiot on you, but dammit, the theme of this script is:
A misanthropic world-view is justified.
I just can’t get behind this… at all:
0 out of 10 points.
4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)
Part A) I always feel that adaptations are difficult to rate on their story uniqueness. Supposing that I do feel the story is unique, how much credit should the adapting authors get for that uniqueness? Isn’t the originality more owed to the original creators?
I’ve not seen the 1955 film on which this effort was based, however, I’m convinced [by what I’ve read about that film] the Coen Brothers have done an admirable job reshaping the 1955 story chassis into a brand new car. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then reinvention is the most intellectually honest form of learning.
5 out of 5 points.
Part B) I am not a fan of ALL of the writing in this script. Someone out there would no doubt defend the Brothers as having a message to impart with the dialogue lines they wrote which rang false to my ear. I [although I am among their greatest admirers] disagree with such a defense [even if it is hypothetical]. I believe they just wrote a few stretches of poor dialogue:
3 out of 5 points.
5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)
I was pretty harsh in the last part of question three because these Brothers keep writing stories in which nothing about humanity is heroic, or, salvageable. I don’t believe that is true, so I let my beliefs about the world influence the score I gave them.
The fact is, their story pretty effectively establishes [consistently across its plot points] the point they are trying to make. They have, in other words, done their job as writers. There is also an antithetical sense in which they have inspired me, personally, to prove them wrong. Two facts which cause me to want to award them all the points in this question.
However, I also can’t forget that this film did not resonate with an audience. Perhaps, the undiluted campaign for misanthropy which serves as the theme is the reason?
What the Coen Brothers forget [sometimes] and the Cormac McCarthy’s of the world forget [all the time] is that you cannot make Art which denies the utility of making Art. The audience is not dumb, they will catch the contradiction even if you do not.
5 out of 10 points.
Total Score: 76
1. It is probably significant that it just now occurred to me to say something about this character having the same name as the man who was conjoined with The Green Knight.