In their 2004 film The Ladykillers, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen masterfully blend haunting noir with a light slapstick atmosphere, however it is near unanimously considered their worst film. This is not uncommon, as many of their lauded classics (The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou) were once brushed aside by the critical public. Ironically, the same pretentious attitude that led to the downfall of the film’s protagonist led to The Ladykillers’ critical and commercial failure upon release. Like the protagonist, viewers were reluctant to accept what they perceived to be material suited for the less intelligent due to its breezy veneer.
The film is a tale of robbery and deceit in which a dandy southern professor resembling both Col. Sanders and Foghorn Leghorn (Tom Hanks) rents a room from an old, naive, religious woman in Mississippi, in order to tunnel through her basement and rob a nearby riverboat casino. He assembles a crew of misfits each with his own skill or specialty, to hilarious results. When the old lady accidentally discovers what they are up to, they decide the only logical decision is to kill her. It delves in themes of universal justice and deciding what is truly considered right in a world in which morality doesn’t exist. This is mainly demonstrated through the ironic downfall of each character.
The large majority of critics believe that the film was meticulously conceived, but haphazardly constructed. While adapting the story from its original british roots (it is a remake of a 1955 british comedy) to the American South, they were able to maintain a lot of the same themes of moral retribution and desolation in a whole new setting. Critics praised the ideas and themes of the film, but believed the hasty second half, questionable casting and soundtrack decisions (a half and half split between gospel and hip hop music) noted an emphasis on pre-production as opposed to the finished product.
This film is also notable for many allusions to influential films and stories, especially The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. The protagonist’s infatuation with the tales of Poe
are only made more memorable by his death (a raven knocks a statue of death onto his head killing him on impact). It is irony such as this that adds a chilling atmosphere to an otherwise silly and slapstick affair. Themes of the afterlife are highlighted by harrowing sight of a garbage barge, otherwise insignificant, that serves as a repeated receptacle for the fallen criminals. Seldom have comedies with such a low brow portrayed so deftly themes of such moral limitations.
Since this film has been released and subsequently forgotten, ensuing Coen Brothers’ films have generated universal acclaim. Perhaps this is a sign that the critics are once again changing away from their initial complaints, or that they have been improving in their craft. It is interesting however that their 2010 film True Grit, also a remake, was an Oscar contender and critical darling. It appears the days of the critical misinterpretations regarding the Coens are far behind.