True Grit (2010)

Coen Bros.

6/10 (Is it a dramatic western or a comedy? Pick one and stick with it please.)

The good news is that I liked this better than any of the Coen Bros. last three films. The bad news is that I didn’t much like “A Serious Man,” “Burn After Reading,” or “No Country for Old Men.”

The Coens’ latest effort leaves me firmer in my opinion of all of their work since about 2001. They’re unable to adequately convey any sort of emotional impact because their characters are little more than cartoons. Along the same vein, they’re overly intellectual and prefer cute parlor tricks to actual substance. In this flick their gimmick appears to be that none of the characters can use contractions.

But the fatal flaw of “True Grit” is not something that has appeared in many of their other films. It’s an uneveness and tonal inconsistency that leaves you as the viewer confused as to what they’re actually going for. Are they looking to make their mark in the classic western genre? Are they going more for a straight vengeance drama that is independent of its western setting? Or are they doing their traditional dark comedy thing, throwing various clowns and quirk at the screen to see what sticks? It seems to me like they were trying to do all of the above, and the result is much worse than any one of those would have been by itself.

I admit that it might help to have read the book. I am curious to read it although not compelled enough by what I’ve seen in this adaptation to put it near the top of my list. A problem I have regardless of my knowledge of the source material is the marketing decisions made by the producers and directors. Run this experiment: without first seeing the movie, watch both trailers, then come back and tell me what kind of movie the Coens have made. You would probably guess a dark, suspenseful revenge drama with lots of violence and action. Then go see the movie, and tell me what you get.

In the meantime, I’ll tell you (spoilers): you get two male leads (Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon) who are not the badasses depicted in the trailer but rather corny, ridiculous and clownlike, each in their own unique ways. You get a script (and I imagine direction) that tries to play almost every scene for an ironic snicker. Maybe I wouldn’t be complaining if more of it had actually been funny. But then again, every scene that’s not played for a laugh is played like it’s some sort of epic western. I spent the first third of the film just confused and trying to figure out what kind of movie I was even seeing. A large part of that was trying to figure out Damon’s character, who has a great and badass introduction as he lights his pipe on a dark front porch, but then quickly reveals himself to be a prancing idiot.

Another large part of that confusion was the dialogue, which for the first two thirds of the movie just seemed unwieldy and distracting. Then, when the other main characters (Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper) entered and they were talking the same way, I realized that they literally weren’t using any contractions. When I figured that out it got even more distracting.

I suspect a lot of that clumsiness came straight from the book’s dialogue, but the actors’ delivery falls on the Coens. And while some actors (Bridges, the new Hailee Steinfeld, mostly Pepper and occasionally Damon) were able to work within those restrictions and still speak credibly, at other times it just simply seemed unbelievable and it took me right out of the entire experience. I will go on the record as saying I simply don’t believe that uneducated southerners in late 19th century Arkansas talked like that. If anything, that would have been the most likely environment to give birth to contractions in the first place, if they didn’t already exist.

I cannot emphasize this enough: the tone is ALL OVER THE PLACE. A little bit of everything does not make good cinema. It makes for nothing more than a cowardly attempt to have it every which way possible, without truly committing to anything. This ‘graph is specifically directed to all of the critics out there who loved the film.

That’s not to say that it was all bad. I just have to emphasize the negatives in order to counteract the unrelenting stream of ass-kissing praise that flows from the critics’ fingertips when it comes to all things Coen.

In reality, the cinematography and score were terrific, as is to be expected with the Coens. Jeff Bridges was wonderful once more, although that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who knows anything about movies (Steinfeld will also receive much praise but in my opinion was not convincing with what appeared to be a rather robotic character). Barry Pepper was good and almost unrecognizable as the scraggly leader of an outlaw gang. The entire movie was much more entertaining than most of their previous entries over the last decade. Of course if you read my other reviews of their films you’ll understand that this is faint praise.

Last words: despite it’s flaws, this is a decent film to see in the theater. The photography and action lend it well to the big screen. But if you’re watching critically, the uneveness will distract and/or irritate you, so be prepared.

24 December 2010

Check out other reviews of “Grit”


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