True Grit may be a technically competent picture, but that’s about it. I couldn’t help but remember what James Agee wrote about Lost Weekend in 1945. He said, “… I see nothing in it that is new, sharply individual, or strongly creative. It is, rather, a skillful restatement, satisfying and easy to overrate in a time of general dereliction and fatuousness, of some sound commonplaces.” Though I found True Grit relatively unsatisfying, I can see why audiences might disagree. They’ve been fed so much crap that they are beginning to believe the Coen Brothers are master filmmakers. Their style and sensibilities are recognizable to mass audiences, comforted by the delusion that they are watching entertaining and substantial cinema, and critics who enjoy singing the praises of a film non-movie geeks will embrace, thereby proving their value to a world increasingly unresponsive to critics. In time though, True Grit and many of their more recent “successes”, like The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, will creak under the weight of their pretentiously calculated unpretentious artistry, their watered-down Lynchian sensibilities, and their ugly and ultimately empty world views. I’m afraid, if they keep going down this path, that we will begin to suspect that even their great movies (and there are some), will become suspect; that maybe we will discover the Coens didn’t have anything to say in the first place; it was all style and snark without those emotions and insights that so many of us walked away from Fargo with.
To be sure the Coen Brothers have made some great movies, but they have made many more duds and the recent years have been overpopulated by their misfires. Their great movies (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing) and their good movies (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink) were all released between 1984 and 1996, a twelve year period that may, when their obituaries are finally written many years down the road, represent their golden age. Their output since their 1996 triumph Fargo has been decidedly mediocre to awful (and I’m not even taking into account the terrible Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers). The problem is their bad pictures have received as much praise and success as their good ones suggesting to them that something like True Grit is good enough.
Critics and audiences have fallen all over themselves to (over)praise much of what they have done since Fargo in 1996, but it seems to me much of that can be chalked up to diminished expectations. Movies have been so weak over this period that audiences and critics have eagerly embraced any filmmaker who shows an ounce of creativity. In all the praise for No Country, didn’t anyone stop and ask what the point of it all was? (OK, Andrew Sarris did.) It doesn’t work as an action picture as it plods along as a soulless, pointless litany of killing, and we should have thrown up our hands in exacerbation when Josh Brolin, clear of any chance of discovery, ventures back to the scene of the crime for a silly pang of conscience. Don’t we divest ourselves of any emotional connection to a man too stupid to take the money and run? For all the violence, all the crimes, all the sociopathic killing, we’re left with a nihilism that we would not have suspected from the men who made Fargo and Miller’s Crossing. (No Country is essentially Fargo without the original characters, compelling story, or humor.) It isn’t even chilling because Javier Bardem’s villain is ultimately a cartoon character, unrecognizable outside of video or comic book worlds, more akin to the robotic single-mindedness of Gort, than a truly chilling movie hit man like Max von Sydow’s practical minded Joubert in Three Days of the Condor.
While it’s disappointing to see so many intelligent people inexplicably embrace the empty-headed nihilism of No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers aren’t entirely to blame. After all, No Country was only one in a long line of their movies to receive undue praise. They have been rewarded, commercially and critically, for the intellectually nonsensical fluff they have been churning out. Somehow The Big Lebowski, Burn after Reading, and A Serious Man actually say something about modern American life, when they are, in reality, lame, shallow comedies overburdened by the Coens’ off-kilter sensibilities. They have nothing substantial to say except that things we revere, the things we take seriously, our social conventions and national mythologies are absurd. Well, it doesn’t take a genius to come up with that. These movies are as empty as the institutions and social mores they lampoon. And that’s fine, they don’t have to say anything deep, but the Coens keep pretending they’re saying something and critics and viewers let them off the hook because, with all the oddities on screen, they feel these movies must be saying something. What they don’t often consider is all the quirkiness and eccentricity aren’t the satirical devices they think they are. They are, in fact, cheap gimmicks in place to cover up the gaping maw of intellectual inactivity under the surface of it all.
True Grit, like most of their movies of the past 15 years, buckles under the twin terrors of audience approval and artistic expectation. It’s safe, never pushing the envelope, never asking us to re-examine to legends of the West as others have done so well, never asking us to consider the morality of vigilante justice, never utilizing their quirky sensibilities to reimagine the story or the characters of the novel or the 1969 film. Girl’s father is murdered, girl hires bounty hunter to track killer, off they go, killer killed, the end. There’s little to envelope our senses or grip our attention. Never once are we caught up in the drama or the action; it’s all too perfunctory, too empty, and devoid of emotion.
True Grit isn’t as ambitious as No Country for Old Men, and that’s fine; in some ways that makes it a better movie. It manages to avoid any faux profundity (though I’m sure plenty of people will look for it), but fails on a basic narrative level. With the exception of Jeff Bridges’ fiendish and funny performance, no one else connects. Even the widely admired Hailee Steinfeld performance left me cold. It’s not that she’s bad. It’s just that she doesn’t have much to do except spit out stoically cold dialogue and stare Rooster Cogburn down determinedly. Just about everyone else in the picture suffers the same handicap though.
Everyone stumbles through the awkward dialogue that is, I assume, meant to invoke historical distance (and, I understand, is taken mostly from the novel). I have never understood why filmmakers assume that the absence of contractions and perfect grammatical constructions invoke nineteenth century realities. Speaking as an historian of the nineteenth century United States, I can guarantee you that the regular guy on the street would have had no problem inserting an occasional contraction into a sentence. It might have made sense and been funny if Rooster, already a quirky guy, utilized this curious pattern of speech. Once the Coens realized that Jeff Bridges was the only one who didn’t make it sound like Ben Stein reciting a grocery list, they should have rewritten, made the dialogue less formal. But I suspect they had a perverse attachment to the unnatural dialogue and the actors squirming under their thumbs to do something – anything – with this dreck. (I normally love Josh Brolin, but what the devil was he doing? It was embarrassing.) Here again we have an instance of the Coens mistaking pretense with art.
I don’t think Jeff Bridges’ success should be undercut by the movie’s failings, because he gives us something special. Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is at times funny and scary and heroic and crude and chivalrous. He is able to meld these contradictions into a character that embodies everything we in the United States admire in a man – fearless and resolute, nominally on the right side of the law, but unafraid to bend it. He is a man who has a past, has been on the wrong side of the law, and his moral compass is unclear. Does he hunt criminals because of ethical or moral concerns? Or does it just pay better? Over the course of the picture his almost rigged morality does begin to glean through. Cogburn is a vigilante, he may kill criminals with relish, but he believes he is on the right side.
I wish the joy that Mr. Bridges put into developing his character wasn’t wasted on a joylessly written and directed movie. If half the energy Bridges invested in his role had been invested behind the camera, who knows what we could have had? I am being especially hard on True Grit; it isn’t a terrible movie – maybe average – but, as I’ve talked about above, I hope audiences and critics stop accepting everything the Coens throw at them. Demand something better, stop mistaking point of view with greatness, or reference with satire. Just because the idea of the Dude makes you laugh, or he embodies everything you wish you were (God help us), doesn’t make the rest of the movie any good. Just because there are lots of self-deprecating Jewish jokes in A Serious Man doesn’t make it insightful. And just because there’s lots of violence gussied up with a pseudo-serious meditation on the nature of fate doesn’t make No Country for Old Men a great movie. It’s time to demand more from the Coen Brothers because they have shown they have it in them. If they want to make mass entertainment, that’s fine too, but let’s stop pretending it is anything great.