It is the character of every art or entertainment to be self-referential to some extent, and movies are the most self-referential of
all. Hollywood can turn its gaze on itself in any movie, no matter how unexpectedly; none of the original audiences for, say, Blazing Saddles could anticipate that
the climactic brawl would crash into the set of a Busby Berkeley-style musical directed by Dom DeLuise. (“Piss on you, ‘cause I’m a-workin’ for Mel
Brooks!” declares Slim Pickens just before he punches DeLuise right where it does the most damage.) There have been plenty of movies about movies: The Bad and the
Beautiful, The Player, The Big Picture, Swimming with Sharks, Entourage (both the TV and movie versions). Leave it to Joel and Ethan Cohen, however, to make a
movie about the movies that crashes through every fourth wall it possibly can, while staying absolutely in character with itself.
Hail, Caesar! portrays 24 hours in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), 1950s production chief at the fictional Capitol
Pictures. (The real Eddie Mannix, a production executive at MGM during the same period, was played by the late Bob Hoskins in Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland.) Mannix
is renowned as Hollywood’s best “fixer,” and in Hail, Caesar! he has thornier problems to fix than usual. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), star
of Capitol’s smash-hit synchronized swimming pictures, has a baby on the way but no husband. Predatory gossip columnist Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton), locked in a
battle of wills with her twin sister Thessaly, threatens to drown Capitol in scandal unless she gets new scoops from Mannix. Meanwhile, the New York office is insisting
that singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) be cast as the star of the latest Cowardesque drawing-room comedy directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).
That’s not the half of it, however. Extras on the set of Capitol’s
latest Biblical epic have drugged and kidnapped its star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is still in his centurion costume
. A note from a group calling itself “The Future” is demanding $100,000 for Whitlock’s safe return. It’s all enough to make
Mannix wonder whether he should accept that cushy job offer from Lockheed.
Most of the Coen Brothers’ films are shaggy-dog stories with a strong element of pastiche. (No Country for Old Men is a rare
exception, and even then not completely.)
How well you like a Coen Brothers film depends greatly on how well you like the characters and individual scenes, and there is
enormous disagreement in every instance. I know people who glower at the mention of Fargo, which is one of my favorite
movies of the last 25 years. And I know people who sing the praises of The Hudsucker Proxy, which for me is a production design in search of a movie.
That is to say, I know people who love Hail, Caesar! and people
who hate it. I understand both reactions, but on balance I liked Hail, Caesar! Not all of the set pieces work (the meetings of
“The Future,” in which a cell of Communist screenwriters indoctrinates the featherbrained Whitlock, could have been
shorter and sharper), and a couple of the characters are dropped too abruptly. But the scenes that do work have a crazy charm
that is pure, authentic Coen. My own favorite is the one in which Laurentz tries, and fails spectacularly, to get Hobie to speak the
line, “I would that it were so.” (Fiennes and Ehrenreich are my favorites in the cast; Ehrenreich, in particular, has an earnest
cowboy sweetness that is totally endearing.) Another great scene is the production number featuring song-and-dance man
Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). The number, featuring sailors singing and dancing about how much they miss their women,
soon makes it apparent that the sailors won’t be missing women at all.
The cast—which also includes Frances McDormand as an obsessed film editor and Jonah Hill as an extremely
accommodating notary—has great fun with the story, which contains sly references to films of the 1950s. Fans of Powell and
Pressburger will note the resemblance between their Tales of Hoffmann and DeeAnna’s big aquatic number. And Burt
Gurney’s farewell contains more than a suggestion of the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing.
The most serious charge against Hail, Caesar! is its light treatment of the Hollywood Red Scare, which ruined countless
lives and careers. The only explanation is that the Coen Brothers are sending up absolutely everything about 1950s
Hollywood, including its tragedies, transforming everything into a Technicolor extravaganza. Trey Parker and Matt Stone did something similar in Team America: World Police, deploying
puppet versions of famous liberal actors (including one or two in the Hail, Caesar! cast) as co-conspirators in Kim Jong-Il’s
scheme to take over the world. Parker and Stone displeased many critics with that; I will only note that the Coens have always been at least as cheeky as Parker and Stone.
Hail, Caesar! may be the fluffiest film the Coens have ever produced; it certainly has the lowest body count. Neither a total
spoof nor a hommage, it shows the same affection for Hollywood that Fargo did for the residents of rural Minnesota: slightly condescending, but still beguiled.
The characters in The Witch, the feature debut of director-screenwriter Robert Eggers, are also beguiled—but in the
traditional, and sinister, sense of the word. Instead of celebrating the glitzy technical bravado that goes by the name of “movie magic,” The Witch presents ancient modes of magic at
their most terrifying, and argues that the fear of such magic is at least as destructive as the magic itself.
Set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 17th century, The Witch begins with William (Ralph Ineson) being banished from
the colony for heresy. It isn’t that William is a backslider in the Christian faith; on the contrary, he sees his accusers as
backsliders and heretics. After denouncing his judges as whited sepulchers, he rides off to a remote farm with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their four children.
The action picks up several months later. William and his family eke out an existence on the ramshackle farm, and a fifth child,
baby Samuel, has been born. One day teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching Samuel at the edge of
the wood when—literally in the blink of an eye—he vanishes.
In dim scenes that seem to be lit by hellfire, we see what happens to the baby, and it is horrifying. However, Eggers is
more interested in the effect Samuel’s disappearance has on the remaining family. It is, Eggers shows us, the beginning of their dissolution.
The family is already is in deep trouble. The crops are failing,
and game is not particularly plentiful. Kate tells William that she wishes they had never left England, and Thomasin seethes as
her parents discuss—behind her back but within her earshot—hiring her out as an indentured servant to a family in
the colony. The disappearance of Samuel heightens the family’s fears exponentially, and their fears approach insanity as new,
inexplicable horrors occur. A large black rabbit makes its presence known, as does a gigantic billy goat called Black Philip.
But all the evidence—especially in Kate’s mind—points to Thomasin.
Based on New England folktales and 17th-century documents, The Witch is masterful at having its witchcraft and eating it too.
Eggers shows us there are demonic creatures in the woods, but he also shows us other factors working against this family:
isolation, superstition, illiteracy, and the ever-present fear of female sexuality as represented by Thomasin. Satan didn’t
necessarily create these things, but he is more than able to use them to his benefit in his divide-and-conquer game.
Eggers is brilliant at putting us within the minds of this pilgrim family, largely by paying close attention to the details. The
dialogue, often taken directly from the folktales and documents Eggers used as source material, sounds absolutely authentic to
the period. (The casting of Ineson, a Yorkshireman, and Dickie, a Scot, provides accents that clinch the mood of authenticity.)
Mark Korven’s score is appropriately mournful and alarming by turns, and Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is marvelous,
conjuring memories of every dark fairy tale you’ve ever read.
The performances are uniformly impressive. I especially liked Harvey Scrimshaw as Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb, the
sturdiest and most sensible member of the family, who meets a most undeserved fate.
Despite mostly good reviews, The Witch hasn’t done all that well
at the box office. Audiences, apparently encouraged by the advertising, came expecting a blood-and-guts horror film and left disappointed. The Witch has several gory scenes, but Eggers
doesn’t linger on them; he is less interested in gore than in the characters and their reaction to it. He shows us blood as the
story requires, but he knows that what the audience doesn’t see is scarier than what it does, and that setting the stage for the
horror is more important than the horror itself. Would that more filmmakers thought so.