The Ladykillers (2004) Review

Intolerable Cruelty

is a bit of bizarre addition to the Coen canon - they didn't originally write it, the characters were far too Hollywood-like for Coenville and smacked of crass commercialism at times. For long time fans, it was tantamount to sacrilege and they gleefully felt vindicated when it flopped at the box-office. However, lessons didn't seem to have been learnt when news leaked out the brothers were working on a remake of the Ealing classic The Ladykillers and transposing it to the US. With Wicker Park and High Fidelity resounding in your heads, the fans braced themselves for the demise of their heroes.

True this would be an altogether rational reaction were the director in charge your average Hollywood hack but despite their previous effort, it's hard to see the Coens resorting to the easy frame-by-frame remake. Thankfully, they've considerably revamped the script and changed the locations from the 1950s London to modern-day Mississippi albeit one deeply marinaded in post-war nostalgia. Alec Guinness has been replaced by a Southern Gentleman played elegantly by Hanks. A pure American Gothic character, similar in his scientific dialogue to O' Brother's Ulysses, he comes seeking a room to rent at the humble abode of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), a Bible-believing widower. As Professor Dorr seems unlikely to blast out profanity-laden "hippety-hop music", she gladly rents him the room and also allows him and his friends to use her cellar as a rehearsal room for their "Renaissance music" ensemble. Naturally, him and his disparate bunch of friends are up to something rather different in that cellar...

Despite many reviews panning the film as a poor imitation of the original, the change in scenery and the insertion of the theme of sin and salvation had instilled a new twist to the tale and invigorated it substantially and given the soundtrack a great theme - the gospel choirs and the so-called renaissance music make up the largest part of the music and thanks to T-Bone Burnett's archivist skills, works once again perfectly. The generational conflict between young and older African-Americans may be a comical device for lots of the movie - the opening scene features Marva complaining to the local Sheriff about people playing music featuring the terrible N-word and they can't even spell it properly either! - but shows a great fondness and respect for her. Some have criticised the Coen's almost caricatural portrayal of Southerners as little more than strange-speaking rednecks and the same criticism could be levied at them here with the learned professors words getting lost in a southern warble that make them almost undecipherable to my ears (though the subtitles will help you out here).

The spiritual themes are also infused into the cinematography and production design - the film starts with a hideous gargoyle looking down on the world with Edgar Allan Poe's Raven perched on its bald skull and Roger Deakins once again does some wonderful work with the image. He remains quite low-key for most of the film but delivers some perfectly shot scenes that manage to add substantially to the film's tone. Though it is by no means the Coens best film, it remains a welcome return despite not being an all-round tour-de-force. The performances, the direction and the visuals all help the film gel together and though the humour is somewhat repetitive on occasion, it chugs along like a Mississippi steamer towards its inevitable ending. Granted, this is nowhere near as good at the original but remains sufficiently different and unusual to allow it to be a decent film in its own right. Forget about the title and enjoy for what it is - a good but not great Coen brothers film...

The DVD:

The image:
Very nice indeed - a nice crisp transfer with a slightly dulled out colour palette in certain scenes but rich and vibrant at other times. Roger Deakins has done a fine job on this film again and the result is faithfully recreated here. As usual we receive an anamorphic transfer and the print used shows no noticeable signs of dirt or specks.

The sound:
The 5.1 mix may seem a little like overkill but it does get a good enough workout in many scenes with the subwoofer being occasionally called upon to beef up the soundtrack. The surrounds are used parsimoniously but with good taste making the soundtrack all the better for it.

The extras

The Coens have never been fans of commentaries and have on occasion lampooned them. No commentary makes the cut here but we get a few other extras. First and least interesting is the slap reel which is every single take of Marlon Wayans getting slapped by Irma B. Hall - it's relatively amusing but probably not something you'll watch more than once. Second up is a short documentary (12 mins) on Don Ferrington, the chap who built the instruments for the movie. I enjoyed it as I wish I had become a luthier but this may not necessarily fascinate everyone. Finally, the gospel choir performances (2 songs, 11 minutes) are shown in their full live versions - another great extra for those who loved the film's soundtrack.

Though the extras are rather sparse and centred on the music, you won't find me complaining about them. The film itself has divided critics and audiences alike - I personally quite enjoyed it as it deviated sufficiently from the original to inject some freshness into it. However, I've heard that an angry mob of pensioners organised an outraged walkout in an English cinema after they realised they weren't watching the Ealing classic but the expletive-strewn remake. It's a matter of personal taste I suppose.

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