Oh, Brother

Two sets of brothers release new films. The similarities end there.

Sibling filmmakers are so hot these days it makes you wonder if some might even be faking kinship to further their careers. We all know about the Coen Brothers and The Matrix's Wachowski Brothers, of course, but what about those dubiously dubbed Pangs — Oxide and Danny — directors of the recent crossover horror hit The Eye? Then there's Mark and David Polish, the writing/directing team behind Northfork, who've received considerable attention due to the fact that they're not just siblings, but identical twin siblings. If the trend continues apace, expect a major blockbuster directed by co-enjoined auteurs by 2006. In any event, the two best films opening this week were both directed by fraternal filmmakers, although that's about all these particular movies have in common. The Ladykillers is the latest oddball odyssey from those crazy Coen kids, while The Son (Le Fils) is a European art film as austere and uncompromising as they come. The writer-directors of The Son are a pair of Belgian brothers named Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and their film might just be something of a small masterpiece.

The Brothers Dardenne have already made quite a name for themselves with two previous films, Rosetta and La Promesse (The Promise)), microscopically focused examinations that found unexpected grace notes in characters hovering on the fringes of society. The Son is an even more finely tuned and unflinching account of the extraordinary within the ordinary, the subject this time being a nondescript, middle-age carpenter working in a rehab center for wayward kids.

The carpenter's name is Olivier (Dardennes' regular Olivier Gourmet), and the film turns on his mysterious obsession with one of the young boys at the center. Little is said and not much happens in the film, at least in the sense of plot points to be ticked off in a synopsis like this, and yet the movie manages to create drama and even suspense out of the slightest of materials. Almost everything of importance in The Son is unspoken or implied, and the film becomes all the more potent for it.

It's eventually revealed that Olivier's relationship with the boy, Francis (Morgan Marinne), is linked to a tragedy that continues to cast a shadow over several of the film's characters. It's probably not fair to give away the exact nature of that tragedy, but the film is relentless in detailing its consequences — the anger, guilt, confusion, and how Olivier finds himself both drawn to and repulsed by the youngster. (If anything, his obsession seems to spring from an unspoken fear that contact with the boy will confirm the truth of their shared tragedy, making the event real.) And so Olivier moves through the film, sometimes gingerly and sometimes like a bull in a china shop, apparently as unsure as we are of what he's going to do next.

As in all of their films, the Dardenne Brothers scrutinize their characters and their characters' unglamorous worlds with a rigorous energy and unblinking honesty. The takes are long and often seem to unfold in real time, editing is minimal, music is nonexistent, and the intense but unfussy camerawork is hand-held and strictly fly-on-the-wall. The camera is generally perched just behind Olivier's shoulder, or positioned just a few inches from the nape of his neck, giving us a sense of almost being inside the man's skin. Needless to say, it's a style (some might say anti-style) that's more than a little disorienting at first. Soon, however, we begin to feel as if we're making the journey together with this character, seeing the world roughly as he sees it.

Still, The Son is not an easy film to appreciate. There are few obvious cues, not even music, to guide us through the movie and prompt us as to what we're supposed to be feeling. Many scenes unfold in silence and to no apparent dramatic end, while the whole approach here is very nearly the exact opposite of everything Hollywood has taught us to expect or desire in our movies.

That said, I can think of few films that might be more beneficial for American audiences to see, especially at this point in time. For all of its spare, de-sensationalized aesthetic and tight-lipped, blank-eyed characters, The Son is a work of enormous moral and spiritual depth, where sacrifice, forgiveness and redemption are ultimately revealed as the natural extensions of the movie's humdrum landscape.

Even if it weren't for the movie's repeated images of ordinary characters struggling under the burden of long, cross-like wood beams, The Son would still have to be considered a deeply Christian movie, in the very best sense. Its restrained, thoughtful take on right and wrong might even be the perfect antidote for anyone feeling a little queasy from all the gushing, open wounds passing for spirituality on our movie screens these days.

Meanwhile, a world away from the silent soul-searching and Dostoevskian dilemmas of the Dardennes, the Coen Brothers are up to their old tricks with The Ladykillers. The Coens' new movie has lighter things on its mind, so much so that it often gives the appearance of breathlessly jumping through hoops just to keep us smiling.

The Ladykillers remakes the 1955 Alec Guinness romp that remains one of Britain's best-loved comedies (although, oddly enough, it turns out to have been both written and directed by native-born Americans). The action has been moved from England to a small town in Mississippi, and the original's typically British concerns of class have been transformed into typically American ones of race, but otherwise the story is pretty much the same.

Tom Hanks plays Goldwait Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D., a wheezy, weaselly con man who resembles Colonel Sanders with a serious overbite (the teeth were doubtless inspired by the character originally played by Guinness). Hank's charlatan professor takes up residence in the home of an elderly African-American widow by the name of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), from where he and his motley, multi-culti crew carry out a plan to tunnel into a neighboring vault housing a huge stockpile of cash.

The Ladykillers isn't a bad film, but it's nowhere near the Coens' funniest or most distinctive or even most endearing work (that would be Raising Arizona, Barton Fink and Fargo, respectively). The movie's edges have been dutifully smoothed out and its characters defanged; they're colorful and eccentric but never memorably odd in the best Coen tradition.

Despite the occasional signature touch — a cat with a human finger in its mouth, a running gag involving Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a man giving mouth-to-mouth to a bulldog — the movie feels like another exploration of the mainstream vein recently opened up, to similarly mixed results, in Intolerable Cruelty. Mainstream moviemaking might just be the Coens' final frontier, but the jury's still out as to whether these most alien of filmmakers are up to the task.

The Ladykillers frustrates even as it entertains, even ending by reducing the original movie's elaborate last act to what feels like a rushed (albeit technically brilliant), 10-minute afterthought. The filmmakers might have intended this as one more subversive wink, but from where I'm standing it looks a lot like their hearts simply weren't in it.

Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at 813-248-8888, ext. 157, or [email protected].

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