The Scarlet & Black

The Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Coen brothers go commercial

The Coen brothers have never made anything like “True Grit,” the second screen adaptation of the western novel by Charles Portis. The Coens have spent three decades building an arsenal of tactics for deconstructing genre conventions and disconcerting the most jaded of filmgoers. Particularly with their past view films, “No Country for Old Men,” “Burn After Reading,” and “A Serious Man,” they have created entropic parallel universes that cave in on themselves all the more relentlessly when characters try to impose meaning or stability on them. And what’s more, the very effort of these characters to find firm ground in the Coens’ world is usually shown to reflect their hubris and hypocrisy. Often the quest to find meaning in the outside world is a way for these characters to flee from emptiness within. This leads us to another regularity of the Coens’ world: it is inhabited primarily by people who are either vapid, stupid, corrupt, psychopathic, flagrantly superficial, or some combination of the above.

All of this makes “True Grit” an uncharacteristic addition to the Coen catalogue. For one, this is a film about a character who has, as the title suggests, real integrity. She is a teenaged farm girl named Mattie Ross (played impeccably by Hailee Steinfeld) and she is on a mission to hunt down the scoundrel that recently murdered her father. Mattie is sharp, witty, and unflinchingly tough, and much of the film’s humor comes from watching southwestern good ol’ boys try—and fail—to outsmart or intimidate her. She is accompanied by two somewhat buffoonish cowboys. One is Andrew “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in his first role with the Coens since “The Big Lebowski”), a trigger-happy Deputy U.S. Marshall who begrudgingly agrees to bring Mattie along on the manhunt. The other is Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), a young man who takes a little too much pride in his Texas Ranger status.

What’s surprising about this odyssey is that it unfolds more or less how we would expect a standard western to unfold. The cowboys are initially skeptical of Mattie’s ability to take part in the manhunt, due to her being young and female. As we watch, their cowboy machismo proves to be the real liability on the trip and Mattie must therefore hold the gang together and show what she is made of in the process. The odyssey does not collapse into absurdity. There are no genre defying twists and no character ever has to face the violent absurdity of existence. The ending is fairly neat and is even followed by a sentimental coda.

There is something discomfiting about such a smooth and sweet Coen brothers film, as if perhaps later viewings will reveal hauntingly nihilistic undertones. There are small, surreal moments throughout the film, such as when Mattie and Cogburn are going through the darkened woods, encounter a man on horseback wearing a bear’s hide, and the three sit staring at one another in tense silence. Moments like this don’t fit with the rest of the film and perhaps suggest that the Coens aren’t entirely comfortable with such sunny material. But overall they succeed in making an excellent commercial movie. With a large budget, they create a visually lavish version of the old west. And they show once again their comfort writing dialogue in a southwestern dialect. This combination of visual detail and an ear for dialogue makes “True Grit” the rare mainstream movie that can be enjoyed for its atmosphere alone.
I feel uniquely unqualified when it comes to giving this film the credit it’s due. As someone who has always loved the Coens’ movies and thinks that they have been on particularly innovative territory in the last few years, I can’t help but feel disappointed that they have made something that is exactly what it appears to be: a warm, uplifting Hollywood western.

But who am I to begrudge the Coens the pleasure of working obediently within genre conventions and of making a movie about a straightforwardly likeable and decent person who lives a straightforwardly decent life? With their inimitable style, the Coens own every shot of this movie. And if they are working on safer territory, they’re still working it with a degree of charm and visual sophistication that virtually no one in Hollywood can approach.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *