On Giving Up the Coen Brothers: True Grit Is the Last Straw

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.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “On Giving Up the Coen Brothers: True Grit Is the Last Straw

  1. daryl.webb

    You obviously have not read the book, or you would not have written this. I would not suggest you read it to get a true sense of the powerful story of one girl’s determination (read, “grit”) to avenge the murder of her father. I am sure it would be lost on you.

    • I’m not reviewing the book, I’m reviewing the movie. But if I have to read the book to get a “true sense of the powerful story of one girl’s determination” then clearly the movie failed.

  2. Jason…I actually agree with many elements of your thesis: Fargo is the pinnacle of The Coens’ career and their other films you list as great or very good…I am with you right down the line. I also am one who found No Country for Old Men outrageously over-rated and a film that signified nothing.

    However….I completely disagree with your dismissal of A Serious Man, which I found to be last year’s greatest film and top-notch Coens’ material, and here’s why:

    http://theschleicherspin.com/2009/10/19/the-coen-brothers-didnt-do-anything/

    True Grit – I can see where you are coming from, but just because it doesn’t offer anything new doesn’t mean it’s not a good film. Sometimes movie-making is simply about story-telling, and True Grit is an old story, well told. I actually think it compares favorably to Miller’s Crossing – they do for the Western what they did for the gangster film.

    Ultimately, I agree the Coens have made plenty of duds and have been hit-or-miss with their post-Barton Fink output….but the last two have been very very good.

    The thing I have always liked about the Coens is that they, more directly than any other filmmakers working today, talk directly to their audience with the material they choose and there’s always that playful jabbing at themselves and their fans. They love to play upon our expectations of them. But yadda yadda yadda…

    You present a strong argument here (as always)…but I think this thesis is past its due date and would’ve been a stronger (and easier) case to make directly after No Country. But who said film criticism should be easy? I appreciate how you have stuck to your guns here.

    • You may be right that this would have been more relevant after “No Country” but I wasn’t writing about movies then, so it’s coming now.

      You penned a thoughtful review of “A Serious Man” and I have to admit of their more recent stuff, this one is the least offensive to me though I still don’t connect to it. (Though I will say I think that if they don’t hate their audience, they don’t really care that much about them.) There was a lot I liked in the movie, but it never came together for me. My Jewish friends tell me I would feel differently if I were Jewish, but I’m not sure that is true or that it should be true. Either a movie works or it doesn’t. (And I have to admit it has been a while since I have seen it, so my critique isn’t terribly fresh. I just remember not liking it that much.)

      As far as “True Grit” goes, I suppose you’re right that a movie doesn’t have to offer anything new to be good, but it should offer something. Jeff Bridges’ performance is the best thing about it (with a nice appearance by Barry Pepper), but it wasn’t enough to elevate the material. It’s interesting to look over critics’ reviews and to see so many positive reviews admit there doesn’t seem to be much point or they don’t know why the Coens felt compelled to make it. For them, apparently, what they saw they liked enough to ignore that nagging feeling, but there wasn’t much that I connected to compensate. Yes, movie making is about storytelling and I think I often privilege story above all else, sometimes to a fault. The story just didn’t work for me. I never cared that much about what was going on.

      But thanks for your thoughtful comments. It’s nice to know that I’m not entirely alone with my reservations about them despite our disagreement over their most recent releases. I also appreciate civil debate. It’s amazing how personally people can take this stuff, as if they made the movies themselves.

  3. Jason, I liked Grit more than you did but I agree with you about Steinfeld; her performance struck me as a precocious recitation without much soul in it. I also have to agree that Brolin was pretty bad. However, I’ll still rate the Brothers more highly than you do, not because I believe that they’re saying anything special or important, but because their pictorial genius is indisputable and I find their comedies funny as all heck. Lebowski is to me the funniest film of this generation, and parts of Burn After Reading are painfully hilarious. It’s not my job to make you agree, but you haven’t exactly convinced me to renounce my laughter, either. However, I appreciate a strong critique of the Coens that eschews such stock jargon as “smug,” “superior attitude,” “cold,” etc., and I’ll agree with you that Fargo remains their best film.

    • I think it’s impossible to convince someone that they were wrong when they laughed and it shouldn’t even be tried. I totally accept that people love “The Big Lebowski.” I never found it funny, but that doesn’t mean you are “wrong” for laughing. We clearly have different comedic taste and yours probably gels more with the Coens than me. I think the only thing we agree on (other than Steinfeld and Brolin) is that they make beautiful and compelling looking pictures. That, for me, they don’t say anything compelling and don’t make me laugh much leaves little for me to admire.

  4. Jason, one of your greatest strengths as a film critic is your blunt appraisals and unwillingness to support exceeding majority positions as you proved with WINTER’S BONE and a host of others. While I must say I regard the Coen Brothers in general as higher than you do, (and thought A SERIOUS MAN one of the best pictures of its year) I am not unconditionally in love with this new TRUE GRIT. It’s beautifully-mounted and photographed by Roger Deakins, and Ms. Seinfeld is wonderful, but it lacks the Coens sensibilities. Others have argued that the Coens can be seen here; frankly I don’t myself. The 1969 film afforded us the opportunity to emotionally invest in John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, which does nor carry over to Jeff Bridges’ very competant turn, which, however does not supplant Wayne’s charismatic turn that was NOT a blight on the Oscars with his win, regardless of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Wayne confounded the expectations and delivered admirably. Hathaway isn’t exactly the Coens, but he treated the material with comical heft.

    There’s an austerity here in this new TRUE GRIT that may become too all-encompassing. But it’s still expertly crafted.

    Your argument here is magisterial. Coming from where you are I’d be hard-pressed to take you up on some of these issues. It’s great to have this view to show the other side of the coin too.

    Happy New Year to you and yours Jason!

    • Thank you as always Sam. What you identify as my strength as a critic (blunt appraisals and unwillingness to support majority positions) can also be a mind-numbing, soul-killing exercise in hate mail. But I take it all in stride. I’ve approved some comments that aren’t hateful per se, but still get a little personal.

      Note to readers: if you wish me, my partner, my cat, or anyone else in my circle of friends dead I’m probably not going to take you seriously, especially if it involves an intricate disembowelment and beheading (to a particularly pissed, but stupid reader from Nebraska).

      But Sam, you and most of the others are always welcome sights in my comments sections, ESPECIALLY when you all disagree with me. You understand how to be respectful and don’t take disagreement over a movie personally.

      I actually agree with you that this movie does not exhibit the Coens’ sensibilities. Just a few scenes are obviously Coens-esque. But really Sam, don’t ever feel hard-pressed to take me up on anything. You have proven your intelligence time and again, my friend.

      And Happy New Years to you as well!

  5. Mark McDonald

    It’s really amazing to walk out of a great movie like True Grit and then sit down to a review like your’s in which it’s quite obvious that you don’t “get it,” never have, never will. It’s as if cinema is an intellectual exercise for you and you’ve completely lost the ability to enjoy a movie for all the things other people enjoy them for: a great story, great characters, great acting, compelling and involving drama, and a deep emotional payoff. Instead, you seem to want the Coen Brothers to use their movie as a platform for some sort of society changing moral uplift, otherwise, they’re a complete failure. Kind of like demanding that a piece of music cure cancer, or something equally ridiculous. There are a million unquestioned assumptions here, but I’ll ask you about only one. Why must a movie question vigillante justice in order to be deemed “great?” Sort of a heavy political template we’re imposing here, don’t you think? And if the audience and the filmmakers don’t share your view of this particular issue, are we really at fault? Or could it be you? (By the way, in this movie, Rooster Cogburn is a U.S. Marshall, pursuing a wanted murderer. No vigillantism involved. But it is revealing that you would think it had something to do with vigillante justice.)

    • As much as I love hearing from readers sometimes it gets depressing. Not because you disagree with me, but because you completely missed the point and misinterpreted everything I wrote. So let’s take it point by point.

      First, of course movie going is an intellectual exercise. I thought any artistic enterprise was an intellectual exercise. All the things you list that “other people” enjoy movies for (great story, great characters, etc.) are all things I love in movies too. But a movie doesn’t get those things without intellectual activity. Actors and directors don’t get together and improvise. It’s all well thought out ahead of time.

      Second, I never said the Coens are a complete failure unless their movies are morally uplifting or mean something. I said the Coens have tried to say deep things unsuccessfully. Some critics and fans attribute significance to their work that isn’t there. I think I specifically say that they don’t have to mean anything, but that they pretend they do means they fail. So no, I don’t demand a movie cure cancer. I just want it to be what it is without higher pretensions. Die Hard is a fine action movie, but it doesn’t try to say anything about terrorism the way Munich or Carlos do. Each of these movies succeeds because they actually do what they set out to do.

      Again, if you read what I wrote, I never said the movie has to question vigilante justice. I just suggested that as one avenue they could have explored for a fresh angle on the tired story. I may have worded it less articulately than I should have but I believe I listed it with several options.

      And one final point, yes Cogburn is a U.S. Marshall, but are you really telling me he apprehended criminals to the letter of the law? He never twisted the law? Of course this movie is about vigilante justice. Just because someone is wearing a badge doesn’t mean he can’t take the law into his own hands, meaning he can arrest, try, convict, and execute all in one swift action. I’m not arguing for or against his actions in the movie, but I’m gobsmacked that someone would outright deny that this has nothing to do with vigilantism.

      Yes, I don’t get it and, as you say, I never will. I’m glad you did; your money wasn’t wasted. I’m also pleased to note that you have proven my point. There is nothing going on here beyond the action. There is no deeper meaning. That that was enough for you is great. It wasn’t for me. Why does that evoke such ire from you? We didn’t like the same movie. If you don’t agree with my reasons, argue against them, but be sure to read what I wrote a little more carefully.

  6. Pingback: Movie Man Joel Bocko, “Another Year,” “Blue Valentine,” “The Strange Case of Angelika” and “Cluny Brown” on Monday Morning Diary (January 3) « Wonders in the Dark

  7. Cobain

    I think user tieman64 on imdb hit the nail on the head for the Coens:

    “For a good return, you gotta go bettin’ on chance,” a gangster says in the Coen Bros’ “Miller’s Crossing”, “and then you’re back with anarchy, right back in the jungle.” His line encapsulates the point of virtually every Coen flick: nothing matters, chaos reigns, bad stuff happens for no particular reason, so just fck it and laugh at some idiots.

    Few filmmakers encapsulate the tenants of post-modernism as purely as the Coen brothers. Postmodernists vehemently deny any such thing as absolute truth, revel in nihilism, sarcasm, meaninglessness and irony, reject social context and objectivity and adhere to French philosopher’s Jacques Derrida’s understanding of language, in which words and images have no meaning and are viciously self-limited, all systems of signs only referring to other signs, all language a web of references.

    As post-modernism is associated with relativism (anything goes, the era of “whatever”), such artists believe that no meaning can be derived from text other than whatever subjective meaning the interpreter assigns to it. Since there are no absolutes, the very linguistic symbols used by the author to communicate are undermined. With symbols undermined, surface re-arrangement becomes the artist’s primary tool. Enter the age of “that’s so random” (or as Andrew Moss calls the Coens, “agents of schizophrenia”), of incessant pastiche and sampling. Gradually postmodernist art evolves to the point at which it starts to mirrors the universe it believes in: total randomness and utter nihilism. The universe of noir.

    Every Coen flick is a hybrid of noir and screwball comedy. Noir, with its conspiratorial, indeterministic universe, being the one genre that aligns itself perfectly to the Coens’ world-view (noir is screwball minus comedy). Be it the car crashes, murders and tornadoes of “A Serious Man” and “No Country For Old Men”, the futile haircutting and Schrodinger cat speechifying barbers of “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, the tumbleweeds and mocking plots of “The Big Lebowski”, “The Ladykillers”, “Burn After Reading” etc, every Coen film is exclusively about the world being “about” nothing other than random, cosmic causality.

    This is the problem with being too intelligent for your own good. Everything either becomes a tongue-in-cheek homage, or you wallow in the dead end of intellectual limits, finding new and clever ways to soliloquise over the vacuity of existence. Woody Allen, like the Coens, has made a career out of doing just this. In fact, the Coens are Woody Allen with visual style, both the Brothers and Allen oscillating between “serious” films about nothingness and “funny” formalist games about nothingness.

    It’s not that there isn’t truth to such conclusions – everything is, after all, a bit meaningless – but one should question the productivity of not taking the next step and asking, “So what now?” If the pointlessness of life exists only to be talked about and converted into art, then that talking and that art are just as pointless as life. Better, perhaps, to break through the brick wall of meaning(lessness) and choose a fork in the road: create some meaning or find some that has evaded you thus far. Which is why the mantra of cinema’s late modernists was always “nothing matters, so everything does”.

    They’re basically Tarantino with more wit and jokes.

    • Thank you Cobain for this truly magisterial comment. You have articulated the problem I have with the Coen Brothers’ movies in a way I was unable to. Their movie’s running gags or ironic points of view are tinged by a nihilism that, for me, undercuts their humor. I would however question you on one point and disagree with two others.

      First the question. Does postmodernism really deny an objective reality? My heavy doses of postmodern theory I had to read during graduate school nearly sucked the soul out of me, but I do remember its basic tenants and a rejection of absolute truth is not one of them. There may be extreme theorists who have staked this ground, but postmodernism suggests the truth or reality is clouded by our own perceptions, prejudices, biases, and expectations, often determined by mutable interpretations of symbols. None of the avowed admirers of postmodern theory I know would assert the absence of reality, but that we are so disconnected from it that it is nearly unknowable. The only people I have heard make this assertion about postmodernism are its critics. Theory, however, was never my bread and butter so if I am wrong I would be interested to be corrected.

      Now I need to disagree with you about two other filmmakers you mention: Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen. I don’t think it’s fair to characterize the Coens’ as “basically Tarantino with more wit and jokes.” I have a tad more respect for the Coens than that. I think it’s the other way around. As much as I might not like it, at least the Coens have a worldview that they are asserting in their films. I’ve never gotten any worldview or any clear evidence that Tarantino has a thought in his head other than he thinks kung fu and grindhouse and giallo and spaghetti westerns are cool movies. (As Johann Hari roughly said in his great article on Tarantino in the London Independent, he could have been a great filmmaker if he stopped mistaking his DVD collection for real life.) Tarantino is a case study of how not to do pastiche. But while he has made maybe one good movie (I say maybe because I feel like I need to revisit Pulp Fiction after years of being smacked in the face by him), at least the Coens have managed several good to great movies.

      And I’m not sure Woody Allen is a great example of a filmmaker who “soliloquises over the vacuity of existence.” I’ve always seen his movies as a direct response to postmodernism, as a man searching for meaning in a world in which intellectuals have told us that the world has no meaning. From Annie Hall to The Purple Rose of Cairo to Crimes and Misdemeanors and many more he has toyed with the theories of intellectuals and found them inadequate for everyday life. Maybe a better example would have been Alain Resnais (whose insufferable Last Year at Marienbad takes the meaningless of life to new and tedious heights). Or some other French directors like Jean-Luc Godard or Jacques Rivette. These are filmmakers who have truly grappled with postmodernism and, whether their efforts were successful or not, are better examples of what the Coens are doing than Tarantino or Allen.

      But great job and thanks for stopping by. I look forward to hearing from you again!

  8. Paul Farrance

    Surely all of the Coens’ films are about notions of masculinity? I wouldn’t go so far as to use the cliched ‘masculinity in crisis’ argument, but perhaps masculinity in flux might be a better term? Doesn’t Rooster represent a type of masculinity that is increasingly unnecessary in the increasingly ‘civilised’ West? And therefore perhaps LaBeouf embodies a more socially conscious masculinity that is beginning to encroach on what was a wilderness. See also the lawyer who talks rings around Rooster in his first scene. You could also argue that the social change demonstrated in the film reflects on the move in the USA to a more liberal sensibility. Rooster, with his brutal, gung-ho approach to justice, might embody the mindset of a recent Presidential administration. LaBeouf, conversely, represents the liberal sensibilities being ore widely adopted in the US.

    I think to say the Coens’ films are ’empty’ and ‘about nothing’ is, even if understandable as a conclusion, dreadfully short-sighted.

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