Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘True Grit

True Grit and the Coen Brothers

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I mean, who says exactly what they’re thinking? What kind of game is that?
—Kelly Kapoor, The Office

True Grit, as many critics have already noted, is the first movie that Joel and Ethan Coen have made without irony. I liked it a lot, but spent the entire movie waiting for a Coenesque twist that never came—which left me wondering if the twist was the fact that there was no twist. The truth, I think, is somewhat simpler: a combination of affection for the original source material and a desire by the Coens to show what they could do with a straightforward genre piece. (I also suspect that, after decades of thriving in the margins, the Coens were juiced by the prospect of their first real blockbuster.)

As much as I enjoyed True Grit, I found myself nostalgic for the old Coens, rather to my own surprise. There was a time, not long ago, when I would have argued that the Coen brothers, for all their craft and intelligence, were the most overrated directors in the world. In particular, I felt that the very qualities that made them so exceptional—their craft, their visual elegance, their astonishing control—made them especially unsuited for comedy, which requires more spontaneity and improvisation than they once seemed willing to allow. And even their best movies, like Fargo, never escaped a faint air of condescension toward their own characters.

As a result, with the notable exception of The Hudsucker Proxy, which I’ve always loved, I’ve never found the Coens all that funny—or at least not as funny as their admirers insist. Despite my affection for The Dude, I was never as big a fan of the movie in which he found himself, which reads wonderfully as a script, but never really takes off on the screen. And when the Coens try to work in pure comedic mode—as in The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, and the inexplicable Burn After Reading (which, I’ll grant, does have its admirers)—I find the results close to unwatchable.

In recent years, though, something happened. No Country For Old Men, though it never quite justifies the narrative confusion of its last twenty minutes, is both incredibly tense on the first viewing and hugely amusing thereafter. A Serious Man struck me as close to perfect—their best since Miller’s Crossing, which is still their masterpiece. The Coens, it seemed, had finally relaxed. Their craft, as flawless as ever, had been internalized, instead of storyboarded. Age and success had made them more humane. True Grit feels like the logical culmination of this trend: it’s a movie made, strangely enough, for the audience.

That said, though, I hope that their next movie finds the Coens back in their usual mode. (The rumor that they might still adapt The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is very promising.) True Grit is dandy, but it’s a movie that any number of other directors (like Steven Spielberg, its producer) might have made. For most filmmakers, this retreat from eccentricity would be a good thing, but the Coens have earned the right to be prickly and distinctive. With True Grit, they’ve proven their point: they can make a mainstream movie with the best of them. Now it’s time to get back to work.

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