Oscarbation: True Grit, Minus the Truth. And the Grit.

01/14/2011 11:45 AM |

True Grit Oscarbation

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 Even the feminist pluck of lead-actress Hailee Steinfeld feels outdated; her precocious moxie—negotiating pay, rolling cigarettes and hiring contract killers like a lil’ Katharine Hepburn, Jr.—seems unexceptional in the context of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).

10 Comment

  • I think you guys are both grasping at straws. I don’t see any “cheap yuks” in this movie — though it is often funny, because of the dialogue, which I’m to understand is largely taken from the novel, but does, indeed, sound a lot like Coen Brothers dialogue. But I don’t see who’s really being made an object of fun here. Many of the laughs come from the sheer unstoppability of Mattie Ross — humor from affection rather than mocking. (By the way, I love the phrase “an exaggerated sense of humor” — the Coens are exaggerating about what? Their sense of humor? They actually find it less funny than they’re pretending to?) As Mark wrote about A Serious Man last year (and I’m paraphrasing here): The Coens aren’t flip ironists; they take irony seriously.

    Nor do I buy that the movie is really about endorsing retribution. Mattie loses her arm. Everything has its price.

    Nor am I finding that y’all are, in many cases, actually saying what about the filmmaking is “constrained” or “joyless” or “unimaginative” or “spiritless” or lacking “conviction” or “grit.” You’re just tossing around adjectives, not really explaining how they apply to the movie. I’ve always felt the degree to which the Coens love their characters gets consistently undersold, and calling this movie joyless certainly undersells the obvious love they have for Mattie Ross, as well as the Bridges and Damon characters. In fact, it’s strange to me to marry the complaint that this is just another yuk-yuk mannered Coen condescension-fest (which I don’t think they’ve ever actually made, but even so) with the complaint that the filmmaking is too staid and boring and archetype-y. So this is an arch Coen Brothers comedy that only has its eyes on pandering to Oscar? So how exactly does it go about pandering?

    And how, exactly, does this movie end five times in the final half-hour? Because it doesn’t save a climactic confrontation for the last five minutes? The (actual) ending of this movie is unaccountably lovely and graceful, probably the most quietly moving final minutes they’ve produced since Fargo.

  • You might have just written, “I love everything the Coen brothers make.”

    Would’ve been quicker.

  • I think the above comment is more incisive than this entire review.

    > Brashly sketching broad types with an exaggerated sense of humor might have worked for 60s-era suburban Jews or contemporary DC bureaucrats

  • Jesse, before you make fun of a writer’s vocabulary choices, you might consult a dictionary.

    [as adj. ] ( exaggerated) enlarged or altered beyond normal or due proportions

    Also, the reason you find the marriage of “condescension fest” and “Oscarbait” strange is because you’re putting words in our mouths.

  • Oh, yeesh. Come on, everybody, we’re all colleagues here (except Jayruy, I don’t know who you are), so leave the “its clear this so-called reviewer doesn’t know what he’s talking about” stuff to villagevoice.com where it belongs.

    I really like Rowin’s review of the film–“passive” seemed exactly the right word to me, for the way the movie, as Ben and Henry grapple with, reverts as if by default, or necessity, to classic Western tropes. Tropes animated, to be sure, by bits of lyricism courtesy Roger Deakins, Portis’s proto-Coenesque dialogue and the brothers’ love of flat (in the Forsterian sense) characters, but compared to their earlier work, with a complicated (ironic) mastery of tone, it feels curiously affectless.

  • @Mark
    Naw, c’mon. Let’s have a saloon-style brawl where everybody fights everybody, without even knowing why. (Even the piano player!)

  • Henry, I’m not making fun of your vocabulary choices; I honestly do not know what it means to say a movie has a sense of humor that is “enlarged” or “altered beyond normal proportions.” What’s a normal proportion of sense of humor in a movie, especially by filmmakers who often make and usually dabble in comedy? I don’t see how “exaggerated” interacts with the phrase “sense of humor” in a meaningful way; it still comes off to me like you’re saying the movie is “too funny” or something, which, yeah, I don’t really get.

    And: let me get this straight… you find the movie “facetious” and say the Coens are up to their “old tricks,” but that has nothing at all to do with the idea that they’re sometimes tagged as condescending? You meant something COMPLETELY different and wholly unrelated to that idea? If so, I apologize, but I think my central point — that it’s strange to bemoan the movie being full of yuk-yuk jokes and also, apparently, awards aspirations — still stands.

    Jonny, I don’t really understand your rejoinder, either. I pretty much do love everything the Coens have made, or most of it… you got me! Points invalidated! I have this weird thing where I like to try to explain why I like or love something.

    However: saloon-style brawl, yes. Although if I get thrown out of a window, I’ll probably react more like Will Ferrell in The Other Guys after walking away from an explosion, rather than dusting myself off and re-entering.

    Mark, I found the tone of the movie interesting, because the approach seems much more clear-eyed than something as (wonderfully) complex as A Serious Man, but it still manages to echo the deadpan fatalism from their more dangerous, unforgiving movies. You know, for kids: this would make an excellent My First Coens Movie.

  • Oh, I just mean a lot of your initial dismissal of mere adjectives (which in this case are pretty adequate in describing subjective reactions to the tone of the film), along with your ongoing inability to understand the phrase “exaggerated sense of humor” reminds me of the arguments I’ve had with people who love The Big Lebowski. I love most of the Coen bros. but don’t like The Big L. because I don’t think it’s funny (I suppose you could say I don’t like its exaggerated sense of humor).

    And I feel like explaining why or why not something is funny (or unfunny) is probably the hardest single task for any critical writer. So what I’m getting at with my admittedly glib comment, is that there’s always seemed to me a very particular Coen bros. divide when it comes to “broad humor,” a divide that I’ve never seen bridged through reasonable dialogue (only fists).

    I should also say I haven’t seen this movie yet, but what Ben and Henry wrote above evokes all the negative feelings I had about Lebowski and Oh Brother (and all the subsequent arguments I’ve had about them).

  • That’s also interesting to me because while I found True Grit very funny, I didn’t find it funny in the quite the same vein as Lebowski or O Brother (well, maybe some moments of O Brother, but it’s not nearly so madcap). In a weird way, it reminded me more of The Hudsucker Proxy, although I found it a lot more emotionally involving than that one. I also bristle a little about humor because I read so many reviews where it sounds like the prescription is: please be less funny or entertaining or stylish whenever possible. (So maybe I could parse “exaggerated humor,” but the addition “sense of” makes it sound like a request to stop *finding* things funny, which is probably even harder than explaining why things are or aren’t funny.)

    But anyway, just because explaining humor is difficult or even ill-advised doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted! I’d love to hear why you don’t find Lebowski funny! (Not least because it’s swung back around to becoming near-insanely beloved after being maybe unfairly dismissed when it first came out — by me, too. I found it much, much funnier a second time.)

  • I enjoyed the movie, but I also enjoyed other westerns sprinkled with comedy such as Little Big Man and Joe Kidd.