Film: Joel and Ethan Coen: True Grit (2010)

Joel and Ethan Coen, bless their erratic souls, are as capable of jaw-dropping masterpieces (No Country for Old Men, The Man Who Wasn’t There) as bafflingly empty films with an excess of style at the expense of substance (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski).  They seem to know exactly what they’re doing – there’s nothing sloppy about their craftsmanship, nor is it fevered in the way Blood Simple or Raising Arizona were, twenty-plus years ago – they just seem uninterested in charging every film of theirs with the same spark.  Nevermind the general letdown that would have inevitably followed No Country, a film carved out of hardscrabble and granite-certain characters; Burn After Reading, for all its amusement, barely seemed to be trying, running instead on the camp generated by its cast of Hollywood insiders and the occasional beat of Coenesque flippancy (a certain incident with Brad Pitt and a handgun comes to mind).  They followed up with their second work of art in three years – A Serious Man is their understated epic, full in theme and complete in mood, a warm, purposeful cubbyhole of a film that’s as inexplicable as Lebowski but lacks its pretenses of pointlessness.

It’s not a total shock, then, but it’s hard to know what the hell to make of True Grit.  I’m not familiar with either Charles Portis’ novel or Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film with John Wayne; the story itself is completely new to me.  Whatever it has been in previous incarnations, the Coens have made a strikingly dumb film out of this stuff, full of repetitive bickering that leads nowhere and has nothing to do with the film’s core dilemma: a 14-year-old girl’s vengeful bent.  Somehow the film never really takes off.  Its opening shot is sort of lovely, in standard-issue Coen showoffery, as the front steps of the house where the girl’s father is murdered fades slowly in from darkness.  I kept waiting for this to develop, perhaps as a self-contained, ephemeral vignette, in the way they open A Serious Man, but they do nothing with it – the opening is its own moment, abandoned stylistically thereafter.  The film grows visually dull fast, monotonously shot with heads talking in a silly Western patois that I’m told is straight out of the novel, but comes across as another of the Coens’ bad habits: like Mel Brooks or Will Ferrell, they often think funky names and dialects are intrinsically funny.  I suppose this is a matter for debate, but for me it doesn’t sustain; their frequent one-liners often kill their films’ cinematic potential.  We’re not allowed to find a calamitous stakeout funny – Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn has to tell us: “Well, that didn’t pan out.”  The Coens invested so much sociological perceptiveness in the single line “Woah, differences!” in No Country that I missed the rest of the scene under my laughter; we’re beyond their attempts at humor in True Grit.

I couldn’t understand him half the time, but Bridges himself, as always, is just fine, utterly committed to Cogburn’s physical filth, one functioning eye, and crushed-glass growl.  But he can’t carry this film.  He’s not on screen enough.  The bulk of the film belongs to Hailee Steinfeld as Matty.  She’s also fine, able to bang out the meaty dialogue, but the character as conceived by the Coens is so much one of their own clichés – the fast-talking wisecracker, playing second billing to the movie star lead (Jennifer Jason Leigh to Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy, John Goodman to Bridges in Lebowski, Holly Hunter to Nicolas Cage in Arizona) – that it needs another, human, dimension to play itself through.  It never gets one.  Neither does Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf.  The Coens consciously play to their own stereotypes, but so rarely transcend them.  Only Barry Pepper, as the outlaw Lucky Ned, manages to eek past their campy limitations; he’s almost invisible behind Ned’s drawn eyes, chewed lips, and disastrous teeth, and he barks and roars with a ferocity more becoming Ned’s rage than the Coens’ imposed performance style.

I’ve often found the Coens’ visual approach to be a little clunky, a little too wrapped up in the mechanics of clean images in juxtaposition, but in films like No Country, A Serious Man, and Fargo they used characters in landscapes both natural and man-made as evocations of temperament, psychology, and geographical sociology; all three regularly play into Fargo‘s snowblown prairies and its tiny islands of human depravity.  Those levels don’t even step into view in True Grit; the Coens frame heads so that they can deliver lines, occasionally pulling back to fit more characters in the shot.  That’s it.  The few shots that stretch for iconography do so in ways not unique to these characters: the silhouetted rider against the landscape, in slow motion; it’s out of the opening credits of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly at best, but to what effect?  To reference The Western Film, or The Standard Western Theme of Isolation?  Because I know they’re capable of it, I kept waiting for the Coens to take this all a step further and make it their quirky own – as they did Billy Bob Thornton’s wafting cigarette smoke in The Man Who Wasn’t There, a noir cliché they turned into a physical extension of Ed Crane’s evanescencebut the shots come and go, stillborn as the one that opens the film.  They seem to have half-conceived True Grit as a motion picture, as little more than a delivery device for words.

And this seems to be enough for many people.  The audience I sat with laughed quite a bit, at lines I thought unsophisticated and uninspired.  And at risk of releasing the cynical kraken, I have to wonder: did they laugh because they really found this stuff amusing, or were they simply in the mindset to laugh through a Coen brothers film, and willing to accept less for their laughter?  For all its vapidity, The Big Lebowski has a staggering following – yes, there are good lines it, and yes, Jeff Bridges inhabits the Dude with effortless conviction, but what kind of film comedy is it?  There’s no unity, nothing it springs from but a pre-existing well of self-conscious shallowness that the Coens – and, in like form, Brooks and Ferrell – milk for every built-in drop.  I’m not sure Brooks or Ferrell ever had stronger material in them, but Joel and Ethan Coen have made three powerhouse films of thundering emotional resonance in the last ten years alone; they can do so, so, so much better than this, and still be funny as hell.

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