Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out what sorts of movies Academy members are tracking into Native territory. This week they cut Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit off at the pass.
Sutton, True Grit visits, at its very end, a Wild West show ca. 1903, where frontier life is, after just a few decades, already a joke, a commercialized circus. But we don’t have to wait that long to see such a thing: this whole fucking movie plays the Wild West for cheap yuks. I guess what I mean is, the Coen Bros. are back to their old shit again here, indulging their worst instincts for hyuk hyuk goofery. Hoberman called this “one of the brothers’ least facetious movies,” but to me that sounds like calling one of the sisters in The Fighter the “least ugly”. Brashly sketching broad types with an exaggerated sense of humor might have worked for 60s-era suburban Jews or contemporary DC bureaucrats—because then and now were strange and anxious times, and Jews and the political classes are so inherently wacky—but it doesn’t for Old West archetypes. It never does: I can’t think of a(n American) Western-comedy that was any good, can you?
Jesus, Sutton, and that’s just, like, the first thing that bothered me about this movie. It’s a Western made in the 21st Century, but you could hardly call anything about it revisionist: instead of, er, grit, it revels in classic Hollywood sheen, from the extravagant costumes to the score, which alternates between wholesome folk songs and lush, Copland-esque melodies. Jeff Bridges looks too hardscrabble to be called “clean,” but even his messiness seems manicured. (I thought the same thing about Crazy Heart!) Even the feminist pluck of lead-actress Hailee Steinfeld feels outdated; her precocious moxie—negotiating pay, rolling cigarettes and hiring contract killers like a lil’ Katharine Hepburn, Jr.—seems unexceptional in the context of Oscarbait, not to mention that her character lets the filmmakers complete an old cliche: the reluctant teaming of crotchety old man and intrepid child.
Worst of all is the movie’s Old Testament-style morality, announced by the halved Proverbs quote that begins the movie. The story showcases the Western’s familiar push and pull between the law-and-future, represented by the girl (who’s always threatening litigation), and the lawlessness of the past, represented by Bridges. But here, either side discovers righteous justice through retributive violence: bad men are gunned down; good men (and women!) die of old age. There’s some dark imagery in the middle here that I liked, Sutton—the corpse hung from the tree, the severed fingers, Barry Pepper’s Walking Dead mien—but overall this is a dumb, saccharine, smugly smirksome bit of Oscarbait, meant to stroke seniors’ memories of The Searchers‘ horse travel through snowy and sylvan scenery. Except the Coens’ movie sports no comparable moral complexity. I don’t know, Ben: am I missing something?
Um, no, Henry, I don’t think so, except that Blazing Saddles, while also being a very thorough parody of the genre, might be the good American Western-comedy of which you couldn’t think. Also Rio Bravo, whose hilarious Stumpy (Walter Brennan) I’m convinced was the inspiration for Will Ferrell’s cutting-room-floor classic “Old Prospector” skit on SNL. But to be honest, True Grit really doesn’t register with me as a comedy. Partly because, as you point out, its sparsely distributed comic lines are so conspicuously set up, delivered, and paused-after for laughs, that it becomes impossible to take much pleasure from their mechanical utterance. More problematic, though, is the film’s irritating, unflinching and virtually unselfconscious reverence towards classical Western movie mythos. Is this really the work of the Oscar-winning directors of No Country For Old Men? Coulda fooled me.
One thing I find particularly lacking, which their previous Western had in spades, is a palpable sense of geographic scale. One never gets the sense that vast territories are being searched and great distances traveled. Sure, there are all those horseback-riding montages, but they only successfully convey the passage of time, while the landscape (beautifully shot by Oscar bait cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins) remains essentially the same. Doesn’t it seem as though all the film’s events take place within ten miles of town? Right after they (Bridges, Damon and Steinfeld) cross the river that separates the settled West from the Native American wilderness they find the two cabins to which they keep returning, spot a guy hanging from a tree in the next hamlet over, nearly give up when the object of their chase (Josh Brolin) seems to have evaded them for good, only to find him camping out just across the creek. For a movie with seemingly inexhaustible territory to chew up, it never ventures terribly far, like the whole thing takes place in some big hunting preserve for human game like in that much better movie of which I’m thinking. If only blockbusters about humans killing aliens on far-away planets were as eligible for Oscars as these lavishly produced period genre movies. Oh wait.
And there are certainly some things here that work: Barry Pepper slobbering through the grossest set of prosthetic teeth ever, Jeff Bridges joining the James Joyce Club for Distinguished Men with Eye Patches, spectacular art direction, set and costume design. But there’s no pleasure in the execution, little at stake in the process, nothing gained in its completion. That complaint applies both to the narrative—the film ends, like, five times in its final half hour, never with much conviction—and the filmmaking, which comes off constrained, joyless and dully unimaginative in its Academy-pandering (perhaps we can blame executive producer Steven Spielberg for that last offense?). In his review, our colleague Michael Joshua Rowin grapples with this same pervasive disappointment in the film’s fundamental lack of true grit. Coming from a pair of filmmakers who often and with seemingly very little effort make the most mundane settings and stories seem terrifyingly unfamiliar, and turn oddball farces into series of uncannily personal events, there’s something very worrisome about this meticulous, spiritless pony ride into the woods and back.
Categories Baited: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jeff Bridges), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Hailee Steinfeld), Best Adapted Screenplay (Joel and Ethan Coen from the novel by Charles Portis), Best Score (Carter Burwell), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), Best Costume Design (Mary Zophres), Best Art Direction (Stefan Dechant and Christina Ann Wilson).