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True Grit (2011) by The Coen Brothers


John Drew
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Oh, right, that. Somehow I'd forgotten that detail.

Hmmm. Limb-losing has become something of a theme this year, hasn't it? I mean, what with this film, and 127 Hours, and How to Train Your Dragon ... any others?

I love the way you think, Mr. C.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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Actually, now that I think about it, there was another film that was originally going to come out this year, but which got put off 'til next year, which -- rumour has it -- might have qualified for my impromptu list. But I hesitate to name it for fear of spoiling it.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Well, I must confess that I find the Coens' reputations as mere smart-asses, and their supposed inclinations towards condescension and smugness, to be greatly exaggerated -- and the accusations to be almost always poorly supported, as if the points are so self-evident that they don't require an actual argument or any evidence

Since you haven't seen TRUE GRIT, I'll leave the specifics aside. But in its most basic general form -- that the Coens populate their movies with outlandish caricatures and baroque speech patterns even in non-comedies, and the result is really discordant and all-over-the map tonally -- the complaint does seem to me rather self-evident. One might like that description or see something in it or overlook it, but the bare-bones description hardly seems disputable.

What interested me about your comments, though, is that they seem so antithetical to nearly every other reaction to the film that I've come across -- most of which emphasize how straight the Coens play it (and, indeed, how old-fashioned the film feels) and how affectionate they are towards the characters.

Well, again prescinding from specifics for your sake ... I will say that by Coens standards in that field, it isn't really awful and it does (actually like all their films) have things to like. I graded it a "3" not a "0." It's no O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU -- a movie whose Southern-fried Minstrelsy I hated so much I went back to it again in a first-run theater just to see if maybe I had been experiencing a bout of PMS or if I needed to become an IBS activist.

Yeah ... well ... I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.

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Well, I must confess that I find the Coens' reputations as mere smart-asses, and their supposed inclinations towards condescension and smugness, to be greatly exaggerated -- and the accusations to be almost always poorly supported, as if the points are so self-evident that they don't require an actual argument or any evidence

Since you haven't seen TRUE GRIT, I'll leave the specifics aside. But in its most basic general form -- that the Coens populate their movies with outlandish caricatures and baroque speech patterns even in non-comedies, and the result is really discordant and all-over-the map tonally -- the complaint does seem to me rather self-evident. One might like that description or see something in it or overlook it, but the bare-bones description hardly seems disputable.

The Coens frequently heighten the idiosyncracies and quirks of their characters for satiric or comedic purposes, but rarely deal in outright caricatures -- and when they do, it is generally with secondary characters (such as the classmates in A Serious Man that are prone to adolescent profanity). Their primary characters are almost uniformly complex, fully realized individuals. Take Tom Reagan in Miller's Crossing, for example. He's clearly an homage (or "caricature", if you prefer) of the type of cynical loner figure common in so many of the crime novels and films of the 30s and 40s, but the Coens are able to breathe life into him. The entire film is like this -- it may wear its artifice on its sleeve, but there's genuine human emotion roiling underneath the icy exterior. It's a juggling act that is remarkable to me. There's an entire side of the Coen Brothers that too often goes unnoticed as people fail to peak below the surface to see the heart in their films.

Edited by Titus
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Well, I must confess that I find the Coens' reputations as mere smart-asses, and their supposed inclinations towards condescension and smugness, to be greatly exaggerated -- and the accusations to be almost always poorly supported, as if the points are so self-evident that they don't require an actual argument or any evidence

Since you haven't seen TRUE GRIT, I'll leave the specifics aside. But in its most basic general form -- that the Coens populate their movies with outlandish caricatures and baroque speech patterns even in non-comedies, and the result is really discordant and all-over-the map tonally -- the complaint does seem to me rather self-evident. One might like that description or see something in it or overlook it, but the bare-bones description hardly seems disputable.

The Coens frequently heighten the idiosyncracies and quirks of their characters for satiric or comedic purposes, but rarely deal in outright caricatures -- and when they do, it is generally with secondary characters (such as the classmates in A Serious Man that are prone to adolescent profanity).

Well, I don't think you can dismiss these secondary characters that easily because they keep popping up and messing with the tone like a brass band at a funeral, even in a movie that you're thinking is serious or headed in that direction like A SERIOUS MAN or O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, their two explicit attempts to get religion and my two least favorite. You're thinking the film might be about something beyond its own cleverness and you get moments like Delmar yanking on his beard onstage or the blubbering post-frog-death closeup (my least favorite moment in their entire ouevre) or his triumphal line "well, I'll only be 82 (when I get out of jail)."

TRUE GRIT is not without this problem either -- the smart-aleck bits just keep seeping in. Relatively late in the movie (and this is not a spoiler), one of the final gang is ... no other way to put it ... going full retard. You only see him two or three times, but in one of them, he literally jumps into the frame to "Boo!" one of the main characters, giggles and runs off.

Their primary characters are almost uniformly complex, fully realized individuals. Take Tom Reagan in Miller's Crossing, for example. He's clearly an homage (or "caricature", if you prefer) of the type of cynical loner figure common in so many of the crime novels and films of the 30s and 40s, but the Coens are able to breathe life into him. The entire film is like this -- it may wear its artifice on its sleeve, but there's genuine human emotion roiling underneath the icy exterior.

MILLER'S CROSSING is relatively speaking, one of my favorite Coens (here is my personal ranking circa BURN AFTER READING), because it's relatively staid. But it's not without mistakes of this type -- in the overly-fussy direction and over-the-top playing.

Take the assassination attempt on Albert Finney. He's an Irish mobster, so wouldn't you know that when the assassins creep in, "Danny Boy" has gotta be on his record player. And then when the start shooting, it's in perfect straight lines, providing nice symmateric holes on the floor. It all seems ... So. Calculated. And then the scene of Herbie Stempel being taken out to the forest. Yes, I get what the scene is about in terms of Gabriel Byrne's psychology but the way Turturro overplays the pleading and the Coens have the scene drag on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on (have I annoyed you yet .... that's how I felt as the scene was happening -- just shoot the bastard so he'll STFU).

Yeah ... well ... I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.

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Relatively late in the movie (and this is not a spoiler), one of the final gang is ... no other way to put it ... going full retard.

Just like in the first film. Which makes me think it must be just as it is in the book.

Edited by Overstreet

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Well, I don't think you can dismiss these secondary characters that easily because they keep popping up and messing with the tone like a brass band at a funeral, even in a movie that you're thinking is serious or headed in that direction like A SERIOUS MAN or O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, their two explicit attempts to get religion and my two least favorite. You're thinking the film might be about something beyond its own cleverness and you get moments like Delmar yanking on his beard onstage or the blubbering post-frog-death closeup (my least favorite moment in their entire ouevre) or his triumphal line "well, I'll only be 82 (when I get out of jail)."

I don't think O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU was ever intended to be a "serious" film, but I can understand why you would find A SERIOUS MAN problematic. The humor in that film could be argued as intrusive in a film that is clearly trying to grapple with serious issues, but I think this is a basic philosophical underpinning of the Coens' work -- their injections of absurdity and humor is not used to produce relief in an otherwise somber film (ala Ford or someone like that), it's actually intertwined with the more serious qualities. Such as the scene in A SERIOUS MAN, for example, where Larry Gopnick seeks advice from the first rabbi. The rabbi is gone, so the junior rabbi, likely 15 years Gopnick's junior, attempts to give spiritual guidance to him, and the results are woefully (and hysterically) inadequate. The film is, at its most basic, about a man searching for answers to The Big Questions and being perpetually confounded -- the scene with the junior rabbi is a humorous microcosm of the entire film.

MILLER'S CROSSING is relatively speaking, one of my favorite Coens (here is my personal ranking circa BURN AFTER READING), because it's relatively staid. But it's not without mistakes of this type -- in the overly-fussy direction and over-the-top playing.

Take the assassination attempt on Albert Finney. He's an Irish mobster, so wouldn't you know that when the assassins creep in, "Danny Boy" has gotta be on his record player. And then when the start shooting, it's in perfect straight lines, providing nice symmateric holes on the floor. It all seems ... So. Calculated.

You forgot the endless round of bullets in his Thompson or the farcical manner in which he guns down the car in the middle of the street. But this wasn't a mistake or over-direction -- it's part of the point of the film (and is what I meant when I suggested it "wears its artifice on its sleeve"). It's a self-conscious essay on the gangster genre and Dashiell Hammett's writing (Walter Chaw has a good piece on TRUE GRIT at Film Freak Central that briefly touches on this aspect of their work). I'm just saying that's not all that the film is about.

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Relatively late in the movie (and this is not a spoiler), one of the final gang is ... no other way to put it ... going full retard.

Just like in the first film. Which makes me think it must be just as it is in the book.

But which fact does not make it less discordant. After all, a book can appeal to an adapter for any number of reasons.

I can keep mentioning the aggravating tonal mis-steps if you like. Was this next one in the original or the book? The early hanging scene

starts with a lengthy tearful confessional, cuts to one short, terse denunciation and then when it comes to the third man -- an American Indian -- the executioners throw the hood over his head just as starts his first words. Ho Ho Ho. Very funny. What raaaaacists they were [audience bows head in shame that those people not-like-us were so wicked].

Edited by vjmorton

Yeah ... well ... I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.

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I can keep mentioning the aggravating tonal mis-steps if you like. Was this next one in the original or the book? The early hanging scene

starts with a lengthy tearful confessional, cuts to one short, terse denunciation and then when it comes to the third man -- an American Indian -- the executioners throw the hood over his head just as starts his first words.

Ho Ho Ho. Very funny. What raaaaacists they were [audience bows head in shame that those people not-like-us were so wicked].

Are you going to start spoiling, for those that haven't seen the film, the moments that offended you? Spoiler-tag, please.

It's the same principle as any political cartoon: You exaggerate something to expose it. In the catalogue of reasons we laugh, it's laughter that hurts. We're not laughing at the American Indian. We're laughing in recognition of the appalling disrespect. I hope I don't have to explain that such laughter has nothing to do with taking something lightly, but with the shared recognition of an obvious fault. Such "gags" don't make me treat the situation with less gravity; laughing over them does mean that I don't let the gravity of one particular misbehavior drag down my perspective on the scene as a whole.

Heck, it's the same principle that makes us laugh in Looney Toons when the characters physically abuse one another.

I appreciated that Cogburn himself is portrayed as being prone to such disrespect for American Indians - one of his many character flaws (although I'm not entirely sure his contempt isn't more focused on children than an ethnic group... a fact that strengthens the pleasure of watching his growing respect for Mattie).

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Are you going to start spoiling, for those that haven't seen the film, the moments that offended you? Spoiler-tag, please.

Since it occurred in the first 5-10 minutes of the film and isn't about any of the central characters ... it don't think it really counts as much of a spoiler. But I have inserted the Spoiler tags anyway per your request. My apologies.

Yeah ... well ... I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.

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Butting in to link to Chris Orr's ranking of all the Coen Brothers films, and to his lukwarm reaction to True Grit.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Since it occurred in the first 5-10 minutes of the film and isn't about any of the central characters ... it don't think it really counts as much of a spoiler. But I have inserted the Spoiler tags anyway per your request. My apologies.

FWIW ... there are at least two kinds of spoilers. The kind probably most associated with the term involves a material plot twist that, known in advance, gives the viewer advance interpretive perspective on the story as it unfolds in a way that spoils the narrative strategy. But there is another kind, one that involves any sort of narrative surprise or twist that carries a punch for the viewer when he doesn't know it's coming, but loses the punch when related ahead of time.

I tend to be extremely reticent about spoilers ... although I admit I tend to get more spoilerific when I have a complaint with a film. :)

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Overstreet wrote:

: It's the same principle as any political cartoon: You exaggerate something to expose it.

So the film IS a cartoon, then, and not the play-it-straight Western that so many have said.

: We're not laughing at the American Indian. We're laughing in recognition of the appalling disrespect.

Um, wasn't that an essential part of vjmorton's point?

: . . . (although I'm not entirely sure his contempt isn't more focused on children than an ethnic group... a fact that strengthens the pleasure of watching his growing respect for Mattie).

Good point.

SDG wrote:

: I tend to be extremely reticent about spoilers . . .

No kidding. I still can't believe that you avoided stating what happens in the first act of Up, even though it had been a key part of the film's marketing campaign for at least a year prior to the film's release. :)

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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So the film IS a cartoon, then, and not the play-it-straight Western that so many have said.

In my opinion, all of the Coen Brothers' films are cartoons, and I mean that in a very complimentary way. Some lean into the country of Elmer Fudd, and some lean into the territory of R. Crumb or Chad Addams or the grotesqueness of the illustrations Mervyn Peake. Yeah, when people call this a "play-it-straight Western" I really, really don't get it. These characters are speaking "the parlance of Coen-land" from the beginning, which makes the fact that the dialogue is drawn from the Portis novel that much more remarkable (the same impressive overlap that occurred between MccArthy and the Coens with No Country for Old Men).

And as a lifelong fan of cartoons, with ever-deepening appreciation for the possibilities they can open and the purposes they can serve, I'm grateful for the Coens.

For the record, I'm not a fan of their Ladykillers remake, partly because the "cartoon mode", if you will, was very unbalanced and lazy. The original walked a tightrope of comic tensions, and the remake flounced all over the place. (That's not to say that it didn't have some flickers of genius; Tom Hanks was so good that it made the movie's failings that much more of a shame. I wish the Coens would cast him again in something else.)

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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So the film IS a cartoon, then, and not the play-it-straight Western that so many have said.

Isn't a "play-it-straight Western" generally a "cartoon," though, at least in the sense suggested by previous discussion? I think the Coens' True Grit plays it straighter than a lot of Westerns, with only very occasional "cartoon" fillips reminding us that we're watching a Coen film.

: I tend to be extremely reticent about spoilers . . .

No kidding. I still can't believe that you avoided stating what happens in the first act of Up, even though it had been a key part of the film's marketing campaign for at least a year prior to the film's release. :)

I'm very proud of that review. Including the paragraph in which I avoid stating what happens in the first act.

:)

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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I'm very proud of that review. Including the paragraph in which I avoid stating what happens in the first act.

:)

Speaking of reviews, how's the True Grit review coming? (Not pressing you or anything, of course. OK; I am pressing you, but in the nicest possible way. You wouldn't prefer it if I didn't care when your review was up, would you?)

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Speaking of reviews, how's the True Grit review coming? (Not pressing you or anything, of course. OK; I am pressing you, but in the nicest possible way. You wouldn't prefer it if I didn't care when your review was up, would you?)

I confess, I've been hitting "REFRESH" like Mark Zuckerberg at the end of The Social Network, waiting for SDG's review to appear at DecentFilms.com.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Wonderfully made film. Well acted, gorgeous cinematography, great narrative arc. Honestly, if anyone but the Coens had made this I wouldn't have left the theater as disappointed. If anyone asks me about it, I'll make sure to tell them it is a pretty good western. But it ain't no Coen Brothers film.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Final credits just started, and ... Iris Demint!!

This is more exciting to me than anything in the film itself. Don't get the deep love for this one.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Wonderfully made film. Well acted, gorgeous cinematography, great narrative arc. Honestly, if anyone but the Coens had made this I wouldn't have left the theater as disappointed. If anyone asks me about it, I'll make sure to tell them it is a pretty good western. But it ain't no Coen Brothers film.

Final credits just started, and ... Iris Demint!!

This is more exciting to me than anything in the film itself. Don't get the deep love for this one.

Man, I'm on the fence about this one myself. On the one hand, it's the best western I've seen since Unforgiven. On the other hand, it's far from being the best thing I've seen out of the Coen's.

Some things that immediately sprang to mind as the end credits rolled.

1. The Academy needs to reinstate the Best Adapted Score category, and give a whole slew of awards to Carter Burwell.

2. Hailee Steinfeld walks away with this film. Sure, old news, but even the best written reviews don't prepare you for just how good she is.

3. I wish she and Matt Damon had more scenes together. You hear talk about how one actor can rise to the level of another more accomplished actor, but in this case I couldn't really tell you who rose to whose level. They are that good together.

4. My biggest problem with this version is nearly the same as my problem with the original. The big showdown. There is not enough animosity between Rooster and Ned to make it very exciting.

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

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I don't think the big showdown was between Rooster and Ned, but between

Rooster and his fat belly, in the flat-out sprint to get the girl to safety.

That, to me, was the climax of the film.

Edited by CrimsonLine
In case you were wondering, my name is spelled "Denes House," but it's pronounced "Throatwobbler Mangrove."
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I can keep mentioning the aggravating tonal mis-steps if you like. Was this next one in the original or the book? The early hanging scene

starts with a lengthy tearful confessional, cuts to one short, terse denunciation and then when it comes to the third man -- an American Indian -- the executioners throw the hood over his head just as starts his first words. Ho Ho Ho. Very funny. What raaaaacists they were [audience bows head in shame that those people not-like-us were so wicked].

I'd rather have that than see Hollywood adopt the attempts I have been seeing in our culture to pretend that our history had less racism than it did. We have people trying to pretend as if the attempts to secede from the union were really complex. Yet when you read the secession papers themselves, it all leads back to slavery (even the concerns about taxes). Enough people seem to be trying to downplay the racism in our past, I'd rather people keep it in front of us, rather than ignore it.

"You know...not EVERY story has to be interesting." -Gibby

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On the one hand, it's the best western I've seen since Unforgiven.

Hm. I have a hard time imagining TRUE GRIT will top THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES for me (which, truth be told, I already consider a better film than UNFORGIVEN). Or even something like THE PROPOSITION.

Having had a night to recover, all of these sentiments are exactly the way I've begun looking at True Grit. Since I'm now seeing it as a regular movie -- a western -- and not as a Coen film, which it isn't, I must admit that if someone were to bring me the DVDs of any of the above three films, I'd probably watch one of those again before True Grit. And I'm not saying it is a bad film, because it isn't. But there's an intensity that takes place in the others that isn't found in True Grit. It seems to me that the brothers have stepped outside of their preferred underhanded methods and have made a reasonable western -- but they seem unable to create intensity outside of the same sly methods they usually employ. And a western without intensity is a Shane, which is certainly still a western, but a disappointing one.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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