Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
I’m developing a theory: if you want your film to be middling, benign and commercially successful get Steven Spielberg on your producers list. Quips about Gremlins and Men In Black aside, one glance down what has to be the most bourgeois filmography in the history of the art reveals that Spielberg has bank rolled some of the last 3 decades most richly middlebrow fair. There’s no arguing that Steven Spielberg has become synonymous with popular American cinema of the highly profitable variety. So, as the credits began to roll in the final moments of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, True Grit, with our amputee protagonist walking stoically off into some unknown distance, I was less than surprised by who’s name I saw directly after the Coens themselves: Executive Produce Steven Spielberg.
What’s objectionable about Spielberg is not that he is offensive. Just the opposite, in fact. His films are, for the most part, boring or at least predictable. They are characteristically uncharacteristic. In an age when even Michael Bay can be considered an auteur (one who is also, might I add, in Mr. Spielberg’s pocket), Spielberg’s films make a compelling argument for a reevaluation of that precious, aged film theory. Why do I bother making a fuss about Spielberg? Because True Grit, as the colorless Western procedural it was, belongs to this same ilk of ubiquitous Hollywood filmmaking. Almost entirely void of the dark undertones and incisive black humor that have made the Coens’ best films canonical and iconic pieces of American cinema and their less-than-great films precious oddities, True Grit is, as regular cinematographer Roger Deakins captures so well, as lovely and lifeless as the slice of the American Southwest where the film is shot.
In True Grit everything is where it’s supposed to be. Having no experience with the story (a remake of a 1960s John Wayne vehicle, itself a direct adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel) I still had little trouble predicting where everything was going to happen. Here, Maddie (played with overt precision by Hailee Steinfeld) is abandoned by her hired Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridge: the Dude in chaps, wise cracking his way through an obvious character arc). Now, Texas Ranger La Boeuf (played with charming self-deprecation by Matt Damon) makes an idiot of himself. Then he does something brave to make up for it. A shotgun tears through the roof of a house here and a character learns how to love and care for another person there. There’s nothing wrong with a solidly built film, which True Grit inarguably is, but there is so little about this film that distinguishes it that, upon first viewing, even the experienced cinephile is at a loss to identify it as a Coen brothers film.
Yet, there are a few distinguished aspects of True Grit, which betray the otherwise bland texture of the film. The first is a solitary moment, mid-film, in which two “villainous” characters are being interrogated by Cogburn. As one “flips” in order to keep from going to prison, the other grabs a knife, cuts off his fingers and then stabs him in the heart. At which point Cogburn takes out his pistol and shoots the cutter, point blank, in the face. The viewer is spared no detail in this ordeal (although the low lighting helps for the squeamish and faint of heart) and for a minute it looks like this sleeper might arise from its slumber. Yet, we quickly return to the monotonous tone of the first half. Burn After Reading, a film critics were surprisingly dismissive about, had a similar sequence that was even more affecting perhaps because it was the face of an idiot protagonist that was getting blown off and not some nameless henchman. Another fascinating particle is the character of Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin) who is, as it would turn out, more a cowering imbecile than an evil villain. Compared to Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) of No Country for Old Men, Cheney delightfully undermines the stereotype of the merciless Western villain.
Tepid fair though it may be, True Grit will no doubt get name dropped this award season alongside Fincher’s beyond-culturally-relevant The Social Network and Aronofsky’s flawed Black Swan in what has been another middling, benign, and altogether average year in Hollywood. Last year things got “political” (and self-congratulatory) at the Oscars, when the world rejoiced in snubbing the Rich White Man’s film of the year (Avatar). I wonder if this year, just on the basis of the heavy hitting films of the last 6 months, we won’t return to that tried and true Spielbergian model where the widest reaching film always wins.