[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]
True Grit has been rightfully celebrated for the last few months, though few critics have expressed the appropriate surprise at how well this remake turned out. Lest we forget, the last time the Coen brothers remade someone else’s movie, they churned out their unquestionable worst, a juvenile reimagining of Alexander Mackendrick’s scabrous Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. Technically, True Grit is less a movie remake than a second try at filming the wonderful Charles Portis source novel, but the irony here is that the Coens’ Ladykillers is a more ambitious, clever concept for a film than their admittedly beautiful western. Alas, the movie itself is utterly half-assed, the only time that can be said of a Coen brothers picture.
The Mackendrick film’s plot and imagery both rely on the timely, English steam trains that always seem to be within earshot of the action, and the Coens found a wonderful cultural-historical parallel by setting the new movie along the Mississippi River. It was equally thoughtful to cast Tom Hanks, a kind of American Alec Guinness, to play the Guinness role, particularly since both actors clearly relish every ludicrous line of dialogue as they play scheming villains against type. And the occasional performance scenes of a black gospel choir are some of the most purely joyful, documentary moments in any Coen brothers film. But the filmmakers apparently made a few excellent artistic decisions and then phoned everything else in.
After the sunbaked setting and familiar setup are established (five crooks pretending to be classical musicians in order to secure an elderly woman’s house as home base for a major theft), the Coens add nothing to The Ladykillers except a heaping pile of cheap gags: one character suffers from IBS; the old lady professes her dislike for “hippity-hop music”; and Hanks’s coconspirators are all either ethnic stereotypes or clown-caricatures so broad they make Looney Tunes look like Mike Leigh.
When the Coens announced they were remaking/reshooting True Grit, many people joked that they needn’t bother; the original, with all its scenery-chewing performances and cartoon colors and accents, is pretty much a Coen brothers film already. And then they went and made perhaps their least Coen-like film yet, one that’s fairly gothic and resigned, and nearly optimistic about the basic goodness that people are capable of when conditions demand it. Like the John Wayne movie, Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers is already something of a proto-Coen movie, what with its relentless cynicism, verbal humor, regional detail, and breezy violence. So as I see it, the basic problem with their remake is that they faltered in the face of these familiar elements, and never figured out a way to build on their source’s basic cynicism. And for the Coens, whose elemental subject has always been individual control, this is a fatal flaw.
Their detractors have always argued that the Coens don’t care about their characters, mainly because they kill people off without compunction and because they dare to coax hammy, comical performances out of their actors even in “serious” movies. But I’ve always found their films emotionally rich, mainly because their protagonists, dumb or shallow though they might be, invariably struggle to assert themselves amid hectic and nonsensical surroundings. It’s hard to imagine a more universal artistic theme, and the brothers have displayed its versatility by playing the same fundamental struggle as slapstick comedy, harrowing noir, Southern-set Homeric quest, small-town crime drama, urban capitalist farce, and stark western. But there’s no such struggle in the original Ladykillers, unless we count one manipulative criminal’s difficulty with an untrustworthy gang of collaborators. Hilarious as it often is, the film is as morally meaningless as the brothers are often accused of being, and in their effort to outdo its cynicism, they merely removed the gin-dry English cleverness and replaced it with scatology. Coen characters are usually deluded to the point where they can’t see how foreordained their actions really are, but this is the only of their films that itself feels narratively obvious and duty-bound.
Naturally, their second-worst film, Intolerable Cruelty, is the only one they didn’t write, and its shortcomings are similar (though it’s better than The Ladykillers by orders of magnitude). George Clooney’s protagonist lawyer is indeed constricted in his carnal pursuits by his own professional demands, but he’s far more in control and self-aware than the usual Coen lead. It’s their only movie where a man finds a way out of a quagmire using charm and tactical finesse; usually, Coen conflicts resolve either at random (The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man), by violence (Fargo, Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona), or not at all (No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading). As with The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty’s humor feels forced and its cynicism too taken-for-granted, but at least the former has the benefit of being someone else’s vision.
Credit where credit’s due, even the filmmakers themselves seem to have been bored by The Ladykillers. It took them four years to make another film, but since No Country for Old Men, they’ve created the most stunning procession of movies in their career, partly because they’ve—dare I say it—matured. True Grit surprised so many people because it doesn’t pull the usual Coen punches. Instead, it meets someone else’s material halfway, repositioning their usual themes in a new light and with refreshing earnestness. The same could be said of A Serious Man, my favorite American film of the last five years, which also surprised many people for its ostensibly autobiographical detail, and which likewise grounded their usual man-apart concerns in legitimately respectful depictions of religion and family. Perhaps it took a dour homage to one of their obvious forebears to reassert the importance of their own unique voice.
John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.