Cinemascore is a great resource for gauging initial audience reaction and consensus on new films because it remains totally detached from critical opinion. The front page is an interesting site right now: The most celebrated or at least thought-provoking “auteur” films of the year so fan — Robert Eggers’ 17th century horror fable The Witch and the Coen Brothers’ madcap movie-about-movies comedy Hail, Caesar! — currently hold the lowest ratings on the site. Both have a C-.
It’s not hard to imagine why this is the case. Consider both the films and the scale of their release. Both films are unusual, experimental films in their own very, very different ways, but nonetheless got wide theatrical releases. The Witch is essentially an art film, produced by indie production company Parts and Labor, which was picked up for distribution by A24, a company which is known for putting lower-budget, odd films with broad appeal like Room and Spring Breakers into huge theaters after festival runs.
The Witch is a legitimately frightening film, and functions in many ways like a typical horror movie; in that way, it has a lot of commercial appeal, which is no doubt why A24 pulled for it. It also burns slowly in its first half, however, and is written in heavy, figurative period dialect. Its most unconventional aspect, when it comes to major-league horror convention, is its complete lack of explanation of the supernatural events that occur. Several major logistical questions are left unanswered — the reasoning behind the eerie transformations of the characters throughout the film, and the source of the magic and evil.
The Kubrick approach of layering as much scary and unexpected shit as you can on without clear explanation is tantamount to The Witch’s appeal. But those looking for the typical beats to be hit pacing-wise and jump scares will be sorely disappointed. For many in a small town with one theater or multiplex, The Witch might seem just like this month’s new horror flick — something operating along the lines of January’s The Boy or The Forest. But in fact, its appeal is much more, and something other — a tale that is, in an oblique way, about something much more than actual witches. It might be very logical for an arthouse audience, and it is not particularly difficult to infer Eggers’ intention, but neither is it Paranormal Activity nor The Conjuring.
Hail, Casear! is quite simply, just a most challenging, inside-baseball kind of film, one which is located in theaters alongside Kung Fu Panda 3 simply because it is the Coens’ handiwork. The typical Coens ethos is a “one for me, one for them” type of deal, except their smaller, more niche films — say, A Serious Man or Inside Llewyn Davis — often end up becoming just as beloved as their marquee, more broad-canvas productions like No Country for Old Men or True Grit. But the self-consciously goofy Hail, Caesar! ends up being one of the hardest sells of their career, though it’s a very smart, often beautiful and uniquely constructed movie. It takes a bit of knowledge of classic film to be able to chuckle at many of the parodies, a bit of knowledge of American history (the blacklist, the H-bomb, which lurk in the background without a whole lot of explanation) and a fair amount of Bible know-how to get what the hell is going on with Josh Brolin’s character.
Those who came expecting another Big Lebowski/O Brother, Where Art Thou? type of Coen comedy, though, were no doubt sorely disappointed. Even if they were just looking for any old comedy — something to do on a Saturday afternoon — they would have found something odder and less laugh-out-loud funny in Hail, Caesar!.
These films confused some critics as well. The Witch left some upset that Eggers had confirmed early American fears about witches, rather than seeing it as a subversive indictment of patriarchal fear of un uninhabited sexuality. Some thought Hail, Caesar! was too messy, slight, and not funny enough. It’s interesting, though, to see how context and presentation can make such a difference to people’s expectations. If there’s anything these two films are not big on, it’s giving the viewer anything they expect.