The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Single Most Rightwing Movie of Recent Years

Coen Brothers don’t seem to have a rep for conservatism among conservatives, but there’s a lot for a reactionary like myself to like about some of their films. While Judaism seems to make them extremely uncomfortable—don’t know what the story is there--- they portray Christianity, generally, in a positive light, and they seem to be deeply suspicious of progressives. Barton Fink features a solipsistic Clifford Odets-like social-realist playwright who imagines he’s a great friend of the common man, even though he has no knowledge of common men at all, and couldn’t care less what they actually think. Fink is a giant bash on liberal intellectuals, and it’s kinda amazing that it garnered such great reviews...if the movie is any indication, the brothers simply loathe everything that your typical critic reveres.

Now, the critical reception for The Lady Killers was a lot less positive...maybe it had to do with the ideology, but if so, the reviewers weren’t telling us what was actually bothering them, bitching instead about the broad humor and asserting the film’s inferiority to the Alec Guinness original. Now, you can certainly argue that the 1955 version is better, for a number of reasons. But I don’t recall reading a single review which reacted to the remake’s screamingly conservative agenda. I dunno..maybe the fact that the old church lady is black blinded the critics to the propagandistic thrust. But the fact remains that the Coens were discharging one starboard broadside after another, and it’s incredible that nobody noticed.

Now, in the Guinness movie, there’s very little in the way of ideology, at least in my have this little old lady who rents a room to a gang of criminals, recruited by Guinness, who are preparing for a robbery. It’s vintage Ealing Studios stuff, with very sharp writing and wonderful performances, Guinness being very near the top of his form as a demented criminal genius. But aside from a certain amount of nostalgia about Victorian values (which Mrs. Wilberforce embodies), it’s primarily concerned with plot, character and laughs, not that they’re anything to sneeze at. Even though it retains the bare bones of the story, the remake is a very different the original, Mrs. Wilberforce, unable to give the money back, donates some of it to a starving artist. In the remake, the old lady gives the whole caboodle to Bob Jones University.

The Coens blare their anti-secular theme right at the gitgo. The opening song is “Let’s Return to God,” and that turns out to be the message, unambiguously and without irony. The location is moved from London to Mississippi, and the little old lady this time is an elderly black widow, Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall), a devout Christian whose religion is front and center. Whereas the lady in the older film is rather sweet, Mrs. Munson is pretty stern and has no use whatsoever for hiphop culture. Into her house comes G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks), a professor of classics; he rents a room and talks her into letting him use her basement, ostensibly so that  his rococo quartet can practice. In actuality, they’re planning to tunnel into the office of a nearby casino strongroom, and they are, with the exception of a likable muscular lunkhead named Lump (Ryan Hudson), a venemous clutch of guys that any conservative would hate, hate hate.

First off, there’s Hank’s character, a Marx-quoting secularist who believes the formless masses need to be endowed with purpose by higher intellects like himself. There’s a telling scene in which he and Mrs. Munson are reading in the living room, and she asks him about his attitude towards the Bible. He replies condescendingly that he’s “Found sustenance there,” then goes on to assert that there are “Many Good Books.” Confronted later with the prospect of “indulging in divine worship,” he practically has an attack of asthma.

A different strain of leftwing horrible is represented by Mr. Pancake (J.K. Simmons); a blowhard ex-Freedom Rider who fought against Bull Connor, he’s matured into an awful old hippy who vents self-righteous liberal bromides, reads Mother Jones, and is always trying to weasel favorable treatment for himself. That doesn’t sit well with Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) a shiftless foul-mouthed black dude who works at the office they intend to rob, cries prejudice when he’s fired for sexual harrassment, and couldn’t care less about the efforts of the Freedom Riders, because he’s a terminal idiot who doesn’t vote.

Finally, most startling of all, there’s the General, a menacing Asian who’s evidently an ex-North Vietnamese tunneling honcho!

Masking the sounds of their labors with recordings of rococo quintets, the gang sets the Professor’s plan into motion, with Dorr allaying Mrs. Munson’s suspicions whenever they’re aroused; various obstacles are overcome, and the vault’s robbed, but things go terribly awry after that. Mrs. Munson discovers what  the Professor et. al have been up to, demands that they give the money back, and go to church. Dorr decides that the old lady must be dealt with somehow, although he’s a bit queasy at the prospect of killing her; when he asks the General, who’s a Buddhist, to suggest some “middle way”, the General responds, “Must float like a leaf in the river of life...and kill old lady.”

They draw straws, and one by one, end up dead themselves, apparently because God has got Mrs. Munson’s back. Gawain shoots himself accidentally after a spasm of guilt. Pancake is killed by the General while attempting to abscond with the cash, having left a cello-case full of Mother Jones magazines in place of the money. When the General climbs the stairs to garrotte Mrs. Munson in her bed, a Jesus cuckoo-clock goes off, startling him and causing him to swallow his cigarette; he tries to wash it down with Mrs. Munson’s denture water, then falls backwards down the steps and breaks his neck. Dorr then tries to convince Lump to do the dirty work; Lump, who can’t stand the thought of killing the “nice old lady,” gets the drop on Dorr with a  revolver, which misfires. Lump takes a look down the barrel, pulls the trigger...bang. Hanks is ultimately killed by a gothic statue which cracks loose from an obelisk and hits him on the head, whereupon he falls onto a garbage barge that has taken all the other malefactors to an offshore landfill. Mrs. Munson tries to give the money back, but everybody thinks she’s senile, and she donates it instead to the aforementioned  university. As the end credits roll, spiritual singers belt out a rousing rendition of “Let the Light From The Lighthouse Shine on Me.”

The movie’s quite funny, but Mrs. Munson isn’t subjected to the slightest scorn. It’s possible to fool her, and you can see why everyone would react to her bizarre stories by thinking she’s lost her marbles. But her Christianity is taken at completely face value, and depicted as being vastly superior to any of the alternatives the film presents—the counterculture, Marxism, secular humanism, etc. The movie is, purely and simply, a total conservative fix, and if you haven’t seen it, you should go and bask in the rightwing waves emanating from your TV...that’s if you’re not the sort of person it’s making fun of. I don’t think it’s first-rate Coen Brothers, but it sure seems to show that they’re anything but PC.

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