Saturday, April 30, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (True Grit)

Having spent 26 years making cartoonish genre pastiches, Joel and Ethan Coen finally deliver a relatively straightforward example of classical filmmaking with their fifteenth feature film, True Grit (2010).  The second bigscreen adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel – the first was a 1969 John Wayne vehicle – True Grit follows the adventures of fourteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who is trying to locate and bring to justice the man (Josh Brolin) who killed her father.  Steinfeld enlists the help of U.S. Marshall Jeff Bridges, an expert on the rough territory where the killer is suspected to be hiding, and Texas Ranger Matt Damon, a man who has been tracking Brolin for a separate crime.  The motley trio eventually catches up to Brolin, but the film is less about the Steinfeld-Brolin conflict than it is about the young girl’s relationship with the two lawmen, who essentially serve as two possible father figures.

The Coen Brothers seem to be paying tribute to some of their own filmic father figures with the largely traditional aesthetic they are utilizing here.  Repeated use of the hymnal “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” calls to mind similar use of spirituals in Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown(1950), while a Bridges-Damon shooting contest is similar to several such scenes in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950).  The gorgeous widescreen shot compositions call to mind a number of films by John Ford; in fact, one of the most iconic shots from The Searchers (1956) is replicated toward the end of True Grit.  In past films, the Coens used references to past films and filmic styles in a cynical, postmodern fashion, often mocking the same traditions that their own films were built around.  Think, for example, of their clumsy misuse of the aesthetics of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Frank Capra in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).  At this point in their careers, the Coens are comfortable enough to work in an old-fashioned style (the western) without having to pretend that they are above it.  Where the Coens used to rely on sarcastic pastiche to drive their films forward, they can now tell their stories simply and with a technical mastery that makes them peers rather than imitators of the great filmmakers mentioned above.

The Coens had a strong grip on the technical nuts and bolts of filmmaking ever since their first film, Blood Simple (1984), but their skills have gradually improved over the years.  True Grit might be their most impressive film from a purely technical standpoint.  Cinematographer Roger Deakins has outdone himself again, doing for color cinematography what he did for black and white in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).  Every shot is iconic and beautiful.  The editing – credited, as usual, to Coen pseudonym Roderick Jaynes – is dazzling, with the film’s stoic classicism being frequently punctuated by vividly brutal moments of violence.  Virtually all of the brothers’ films have contained at least one wild action setpiece, and True Grit has several particularly good ones.  My favorite is probably the horseback shootout that features one man falling and cracking his skull on a boulder, but a tense skirmish between Damon and a group of outlaws (seen largely from the distant vantage point of Bridges and Steinfeld) is a close runner up.  With the possible exception of No Country for Old Men (2007), True Grit is the most purely visceral and exciting of the Coens’ films.  Some of the action movie excitement is undercut by the abruptness of Steinfeld’s climactic showdown with Brolin, but at least the sense of anticlimax appears to be intentional and purposeful.

Steinfeld does manage to get her revenge on Brolin by shooting him and knocking him off of a cliff, but she (and the audience, who witness Brolin’s death from her viewpoint) doesn’t get to enjoy it for long.  The unexpected force of the gunshot knocks Steinfeld back into a cave where she is trapped in a vine and bitten by a snake.  Bridges, in his one truly heroic act in the entire film, manages to cut Steinfeld loose and get her to a doctor, but he has to kill her beloved horse to get there.  An epilogue set many years after the film’s events shows that our now one-armed heroine's preoccupation with revenge has left her a bitter, friendless spinster.  Her two father figures are also gone; Bridges has apparently died of natural causes while Damon has simply disappeared from Steinfeld’s life.  Though the characters’ religious convictions are presented with a straight face, True Grit is a movie set in an unstable, uncertain world, and haunted by brutal and apparently meaningless deaths.  In that sense, it’s actually a fairly logical follow-up to A Serious Man (2009), though hardly an obvious one.

Unlike A Serious Man, True Grit’s excellent cast is filled largely with big names.  Bridges’ performance is nearly as funny as his turn in The Big Lebowski (1998), and he manages to find some real pathos in between his blustery, mush-mouthed speeches and drunken stumbling.  Damon has rarely been as good as he is here, as a prima donna whose vanity makes an effective contrast to Bridges’ more rustic brand of braggadocio.  Brolin takes great advantage of his limited screen time, as does Barry Pepper, who has a vivid bit part as the leader of a gang that Brolin falls in with.  But the film really belongs to the previously unknown Steinfeld, who manages to make her character convincingly wise beyond her years without resorting to easy cuteness, while still never allowing the viewer to forget that her character is essentially a child trapped in a horrible situation.  The character work throughout the film is fantastic, and a good display of how far the Coens have come from the mocking stereotypes of their early films (and some recent ones, such as 2008’s Burn After Reading).  Who would’ve thought that a film as grown up as True Grit or A Serious Man could come from the guys who debuted with Blood Simple?

Having now seen all of the Coens’ features in chronological order, I still feel a bit on the fence about their work overall.  I generally find more things to like than dislike in their oeuvre.  Their versatility is impressive, as is their sheer technical ability (and that of their recurring collaborators).  The Coens’ films look and sound like little else in theatres, even when they are self-consciously aping other filmmakers and genres, and they almost always attract excellent casts.  On the other hand, most of their films present a condescending attitude toward their characters, an attitude that usually seems to be mitigated solely by the nuanced work of actors like Jeff Bridges or Billy Bob Thornton.  And while the brothers have an undeniable knack for creating oddball surfaces for their films, the social attitudes they express are often as banal as those of the average sitcom. 

But the good news is that the Coens seem to have largely evolved beyond the flaws of their earlier work.  A Serious Man and True Grit are their best films to date, the most narratively tight, all-around well performed, humane, and grown up movies that the Coens have made in their lengthy and prolific career.  (The recent No Country for Old Men is nearly on that same level, while The Big Lebowski is probably the best of the Coens’ pre-2000s work).  After 26 years, the Coen Brothers have finally become the excellent filmmakers that some critics claimed they were way back when they released Blood Simple.

Blood Simple (1984) = C
Raising Arizona (1987) = B-
Miller’s Crossing (1990) = C
Barton Fink (1991) = B
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) = C
Fargo (1996) = B
The Big Lebowski (1998) = B+
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) = B-
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) = B
Intolerable Cruelty (2003) = D+
The Ladykillers (2004) = C
No Country for Old Men (2007) = B+
Burn After Reading (2008) = C
A Serious Man (2009) = A-
True Grit (2010) = B+

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