Film Reviews

True Grit Joel and Ethan Coen

Rating - 8/10

The one overwhelming sensation you always get from watching a Coen Brothers film is of seeing an undiluted and, ironically, singular point of view.   Sometimes they tackle big themes, (A Serious Man, The Man Who Wasn’t There), sometimes they do homage (Miller’s Crossing, Hudsucker Proxy), sometimes they crank up the suspense (Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men), and sometimes they just wanna have fun (Raising Arizona).  The only constant is the sensibility, which is often ironic and detached.  In their hands, we are always aware that we are watching a movie.  They put wheels on that camera so it can move, the frame is like a pallet on which to paint, and sounds come in all varieties, loud and soft, and one should make use of the whole dynamic range.  They follow in the great tradition of self-conscious American film artists that traces back to Lynch, Scorsese, Kubrick, and finally Welles.  All of these directors fully exploited every aspect of filmmaking at their disposal; nothing was left out or left to chance. 

True Grit, of course, is no exception to this rule and as a result it presents some challenges for filmmakers of this stripe.  That’s because genre films, like westerns, don’t always react kindly to the ironic stance, which can too easily devolve into mockery or unintentional parody.  Miller’s Crossing would have been a colossal joke if the writing, which crackled as sharply as the best noir, hadn’t been first rate; The Hudsucker Proxy wasn’t so lucky.  Until No Country, which showed the nice Midwestern Jewish boys perfectly at home in a Texas border town, I would have winced at the idea of them making a pure, unadulterated western.  But that film, which revolved around drug traffic coming north from Mexico in the 1980s, could have easily been set a century earlier.  Maybe the amazing success and acclaim that followed spurred them on to find suitable material to explore the universal themes that western mythology had made common currency; friendship, loyalty, revenge, etc.   It was certainly not the original film that inspired them, since they claim not to have seen it since they were teenagers and remember more as camp then high art.  But judging by the script for the new film, which was apparently lifted wholesale from the novel, it’s clear that the book was a treasure trove of biblical cadences and dark humor waiting to be unearthed.  After a few key lines you’re aware that you’ve just entered the Coen Brothers wheelhouse, full of portent and allusion. 

But the Coens aren’t shooting for a cosmological allegory with True Grit, they just want to make a good western.  So they let the words spew forth, sometimes leaving them garbled under Jeff Bridges’ facial hair, while they get the action going.  They do slow down for one tour de force scene where 13 year old wunderkind Hailee Steinfeld, playing Mattie Ross, negotiates like Gordon Gekko with a local horse trader, her poise and quickness leaving him, and us, gasping for air.  Otherwise they don’t seek to avoid cliché so much as embrace it.  There’s the usual procession of scenes from the western chase-film catalog; running across the oddball character in the woods, gathering around the campfire at night, the falling out, the redemptions, etc.  There’s enough humor, conflict and violence to keep it all humming along, and the performances are calibrated so well that when the “stick together despite their differences”.act begins, you understand what they all admire in each other.  None of this rings false, or rather all of it does, reminding us that even great art is, at it’s core, artificial.  True Grit may not be great art, but it’ll do ‘til some gets here.