Reality as Revelation: “Hail Caesar!” is the Coen Brothers’ Most Religious Movie Yet

George Clooney plays the star of the film-within-a-film: "Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ"
George Clooney plays the star of the film-within-a-film: "Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ"

Like many, I was more than a little excited about the opening of the new Coen Brothers film, Hail, Caesar!, about a day in the life of a 1950s Hollywood studio executive. As the editor of a new book on religion and the films of the Coens, I had some reason to believe Hail Caesar could be the Coens’ most religious movie yet.

About two years ago, as they were doing publicity for Inside Llewyn Davis, the brothers let slip some information about their next film, to feature Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and several other big-name actors.

Even before the script was finalized, the Coens were speaking of Hail, Caesar! in religious terms. “It’s about the movie business and life and religion and faith. Faith and the movie business,” Ethan Coen told an interviewer.

In another interview, they promised that the film in development would answer big questions:

“‘It’s big,’ says Ethan, grinning. ‘We’re interested in the big questions. And we don’t (expletive) around with subtext. This one especially. Though their movies usually revel in the absurdity of life’s predicaments, Ethan promises this film has answers. “It’s not like our piddly A Serious Man.” Chimes Joel, “That was a cop-out. We just totally chickened out on that one.” “We hadn’t grown up,” says Ethan. “In that respect, OK, we have matured. We’re ready to answer the big questions now.”

I thought at the time that these statements might be part of the usual evasions or inside jokes by the famously puckish interview subjects, but then, last weekend, I finally saw the movie for myself.

Holy Christ, does it ever have a lot of religion in it.

I loved it and consider it one their best films, but the critical consensus saw it as a minor film, “a doodle in the Coen canon,” “fairly amusing,” and “disjointed and ramshackle”—and these were the positive reviews! A more negative critic called it “half baked and lazy.”

But to me, Hail, Caesar! is both well-jointed and fully baked. From first frame to last, the theme of religion is treated with rigor and depth.

I think there are at least two reasons why most critics missed that.

First, Hail, Caesar! goes by fast. The Coens have always preferred to lay out the underlying themes of their movies using blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em moments, often doubling as gags. This film is no exception. Early in the film, George Clooney as movie star Baird Whitlock is handed the daily script pages from the latest Capitol Pictures production, and he is told a word has been changed. Later in the film, Clooney is delivering a big speech in character and he stumbles over one word.

The word that has been switched out? “Passion.” The word he forgets? “Faith.”

Moments like this appear in most of their 17 films, but they go by so fast, that for years the debate was whether the Coens had any serious background or interest in religion at all. Certainly it was there in their movies—but was religion just one more element in their ironic postmodern mix of genre, American folklore, and popular culture? With their fourteenth and fifteenth films, one year apart, the Coens tipped their hand. Religion appeared everywhere in these two films. 2009’s A Serious Man was both their most religious film and their most autobiographical. (They grew up in a semi-observant Jewish home.) A Serious Man did not just mine Judaism for cultural comedy (Yiddishisms, stereotypes), but engaged deeply with rabbinic traditions of hermeneutics, ethics, and folklore.

A year later, the Coens offered us True Grit, a remake of a John Wayne Western. Critics found it light and accessible, positively “un-Coen like,” and the fact that the film was their biggest box office hit (perhaps in part because it featured Hollywood stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon) seemed to confirm its flimsy status. But several other critics (notably Stanley Fish and Armond White), perhaps more attuned to religious matters, noticed how central the Calvinist idea of God’s grace featured in the movie’s dialogue, soundtrack, and visual grammar.

After viewing these two films, it became possible—even necessary—to read back to the beginning of the Coens’ filmography, and to see their films as “seriously” religious all along. Did we really miss the fact Blood Simple features Christian imagery (light, fish, stigmata) and an apocalyptic sermon on Christian radio; that the key to solving the puzzle-film Barton Fink may be the Bible; or that The Hudsucker Proxy wears its Buddhist influences on its sleeve? More importantly, could the Coens’ increasingly impressive body of work actually be saying something consistent about the sacred, about morality and mythology?

Hail, Caesar! leaves no room for doubt.

Another reason most critics miss underlying religious themes: Hail, Caesar! is a comedy. Here we see the unacknowledged Protestant influence on modern ideas about religion: sincerity and seriousness are defining features of “real” religiosity—playfulness and humor may be used to mock religion, but they cannot be religious themselves.

Students of the academic study of religion will recognize the historical bias in this argument, but it is strong enough in our culture that most critics ignored the obvious religious themes in Hail, Caesar!. One who didn’t was Alissa Wilkinson, the film critic for the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, who saw the film as a passion play and perceptively noted that the whole film was “structured like one of the most enduringly popular genres: the biblical epic, the “Greatest Story Ever Told,” the archetypal tale of suffering and redemption.”

Like Denys Arcand’s 1989 film Jesus of MontrealHail, Caesar!’s main character has a job that involves creating a Jesus story within the film’s reality, while serving as a Jesus figure himself. This is not presented subtly: The film’s title is shown as the title of the movie within the movie, whose subtitle, borrowed from Ben-Hur, is “A Tale of the Christ.” Josh Brolin plays Hollywood fixer and practicing Catholic Eddie Mannix, based on the real Hollywood fixer of the same name, who was supposedly a devout Catholic himself (see here). As other writers have noted, in the film Mannix acts as the suffering son to the unseen strict father (New York studio executive Max Schenk, another historical figure.)

It is a typical Coen joke that the two characters laden with most religious symbolism are two out of the only three characters based on real people—perhaps that makes Herbert Marcuse the Holy Ghost?

As Mannix takes on the sins of the world, or in this case, the studio backlot, he is tempted three times by a satanic aerospace company man, offering him worldly power (the power to destroy the world) and cigarettes, though like Christ in the desert, Mannix does not eat anything at the deep red-colored Chinese restaurant where the meetings takes place. As he goes about his day he shows compassion for fallen women (a young ingénue taking cheesecake pictures, a starlet pregnant out of wedlock) and even resurrects the (almost) dead, in the form of a film editor, inside a tomblike editing suite, whose scarf is caught in between the reels of her splicer.

That this same resurrection scene serves as a cameo for Joel Coen’s wife Frances McDormand, a commentary on the subservient status of women in Hollywood, a way to advance one of the many subplots, and a macabre sight gag makes it that much clearer just how many levels the Coens are working on at once.

One blogger writes “I might be mistaken, but I believe this is the first time the brothers have dipped their toes into New Testament waters.” Indeed he is mistaken. The Coens love the New Testament as only secular Jews can.

The first shot in Hail, Caesar!, of a wooden statue of Jesus above the altar of a Catholic Church recalls a similar shot near the beginning of The Man Who Wasn’t There, a movie about a man dying for the sins of others. And let us not forget that in Miller’s Crossing, Tom Reagan’s name is invoked alongside Jesus’ almost thirty times, and of course, in The Big Lebowski, the Dude “is taking ‘er easy for us sinners.”

Clearly, the Coens enjoy playing with Jesus figures. But what is the point of this extended parallel in Hail, Caesar!? My read is that by making a studio executive a Christ figure, Coen makes the point that religion and film are connected. Thus, Hail Caesar! is not just a movie about religion—it’s a movie that questions and celebrates the various connections between religion and the movies. This makes me particularly happy because these connections are something I teach and research often, and the Coens know their stuff; if they haven’t read scholarship on that subject (notably S. Brent Plate’s essential Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World), they might as well have.

Indeed, Richard Brody, who blogs for The New Yorker, notes Hail, Caesar!’s “brilliantly ironic parallels between religious belief—specifically, Christian doctrine—and the realms of Hollywood” and how the Coens realize that the true American religion is the “worship of secular images.”

This is not a new theme for the Coens: Their 1991 feature, Barton Fink, is also set at Capitol Pictures, but in 1941—exactly ten years earlier than Hail, Caesar’s setting. If the apocalyptic Fink sees both religion and film as essentially solipsistic acts of creation that trap you in your own mind, then the redemptive Caesar posits that both religion and film are both marvelous and necessary mythologies that synthesize the seemingly contradictory spiritual and material realms.

This dialectic (to use a term repeated by the film’s communists screenwriters) is first laid out for us in the early scene in which Mannix meets with four clergymen. Many critics noted the humor in that scene, and one commenter thought it “an exploration of the self-censorship Hollywood practiced.” Few recognized it as introducing the terms of the film’s debate. This scene was clearly inspired by the consensus between a nascent Hollywood and “mainstream” religion over religious authenticity and propriety on screen, as epitomized by the biblical epic genre. But the rapid dialogue contains some deep theological discussions of the Christianity’s paradoxical understanding of Jesus as both human and divine. When Mannix points out, to placate the crabby rabbi, that this might describe all of us, the Coens have given us the key to the whole movie.

This key unlocks Mannix’s own story—he is a spiritual man who is the “Head of Physical Production” at his studio, a good man who lies, bribes and physically intimidates to get his way, and a man who has to choose between what’s easy and what’s right—and that choice can be made, according to his priest, by listening to the voice of God within him, recalling what Mannix told the rabbi earlier.

But this key—the hybrid natures of film and religion, and perhaps life itself—also helps us understand the overstuffed subplots and tangents that most critics have focused on. As Mannix does his job, he encounters various hybrids, including mermaids (ScarJo plays one, Channing Tatum sings about them) and battling twin gossip columnists, whose names, Thora and Thessaly, perhaps suggest Norse and Greek mythologies (I noticed only because Mannix asked each of the pair about the meaning of their names). More importantly, as Mannix goes from film set to film set, from one amazing set piece to the next, he encounters various hybrid Hollywood genres including a musical water ballet, a singing cowboy comedy, and a Communist-infiltrated bible epic, each of which are at the same time completely artificial and yet produce real emotion in the viewing audience (both inside and outside the filmic reality).

As Hail, Caesar! reaches its final half-hour—its synthesis (to follow our dialectical model), the “real world” depicted in the film becomes more and more artificial and film-like. As Hobie Doyle’s car reflects neon street signs in an obvious green screen shot, as the fakey submarine rising off the shore reflects the moonlight, the Coens force us, as audience, to reflect on the double nature of reality as a kind of revelation.

So once again the Coens are teaching us how to see. From Blood Simple onwards, and most notably in No Country For Old Men, the Coens have explored the metaphysical and moral properties of light and darkness. In Hail, Caesar!, they playfully articulate that lesson. A buried clue (or just coincidence) that suggests the importance of vision, of “showing” in this film may be found in the name of the Roman tribune played by George Clooney as Baird Whitlock: Autolycus.

To Autolycus is the only surviving work by the church father, Theophilus of Antioch. It is addressed to his pagan friend, Autolycus, described as having “a fluent tongue and an elegant style” (as good a description of George Clooney as any). In the opening line of the second chapter, “That the Eyes of the Soul Must Be Purged Ere God Can Be Seen,” Theophilus tells Autolycus that “if you say, Show me your God, I would reply, Show me yourself, and I will show you my God.” In Hail, Caesar! characters are repeatedly told to “watch” and once to “squint against the grandeur.” In the final shot a water tower instructs the audience to “Behold,” while the plummy British narrator tells us that Mannix’s story is “written in light.”

Movies and photography, of course, are often said to be written in light, but that last line seems to describe a religious apotheosis as well. And so the Coen Brothers, as ever, accept the mystery and leave us with a final reminder of the paradox that the sacred must be both visual and invisible, seen and unseen, just as they bring us, as we watch Mannix watching the film within the film, to wait for the “divine presence to be shot later.”