True Grit (Coen & Coen, 2010)

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn

The most difficult part of writing a review for True Grit, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is resisting the urge to follow every sentence of praise, however moderated, with the word “but.”

Walking to my car after the screening, the first thing I said to my friend was, “Well, that was terrifically entertaining….” The urge to add the “but” was not literally overwhelming, though I do think the ellipses were audible in my voice.

When exactly did “entertaining” become a slight? Is it because this is a Coen Brothers picture and one knows that it will, because of auteurship alone, be a candidate for awards? Maybe, although I don’t have a strong emotional investment in the Coens’ previous work, so more accessible is usually better in my book.

In just about every comparable way, True Grit is superior to the 1969 filming by Henry Hathaway. Hailee Steinfeld is able to make Mattie Ross a mature child rather than a precocious one. Jeff Bridges fills out the role that John Wayne, lets face it, pretty much sketched in outline. I suppose Robert Duvall versus Barry Pepper is a push. Matt Damon in comparison to Glen Campbell, though? Rout on.

If I have a concern–and I do–it’s that there was a lot of laughter in the first half of the film. Not the nervous, uncomfortable laughter that one might expect from dark comedy–genuine, unfettered laughter. Perhaps the audience has grown freer in its ability to be entertained by material that is dark and yet played lightly. The result is, though, that when the material turns more serious, as it must, the transition doesn’t really take. We see flashes, perhaps, of realization. We don’t really see much development. I understand that emotional development isn’t always linear. Even so, when Mattie objects to leaving a cabin without burying a few corpses, her backward glance seemed to forebode a deeper internal conflict than is ever realized.

Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Tom Chaney is perhaps the only real subversive element of the film. The Coens cut the early scenes with Chaney included in Hathaway’s film, including the actual murder of Maddie’s father. The Tom Chaney of the early film was a drunk and a coward; Brolin plays him, perhaps as a bit of a simpleton. I found myself wondering if he was supposed to be mentally impaired. (It’s hard to tell because everyone in this movie talks with a peculiarly slow cadence in combination with elevated diction.) Perhaps I just wanted him to be so that the film could be read as deeper or more problematic than I ultimately think it was.

There isn’t much second guessing or soul probing in the resolution. By the time it comes around, though, we have enough invested in the characters and their journey that we want them to win. The audience isn’t made to feel bad about laughing at these characters since they pretty much exist  as self-conscious of the fact that they are movie characters.

There, I avoided using the “b” word. Read closely and you can probably hear it at the conclusion of every sentence. I’m not sure what the means beyond the fact that I’ve never before felt quite so much like I was being a miser for saying I thought something an enjoyable, disposable work of entertainment.

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