It was the last of the year’s Awards season contenders to debut, Paramount deciding to showcase True Grit (Dec 22nd) void of any film festivals coverage and just play the Western for critics and see them gush over the Coen Brothers’ latest masterpiece. Right? That’s how it goes year in/year out isn’t it?
It certainly has been the case in recent years with No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man.
But it hasn’t quite worked out that way this time. YES, there is a very vocal support for the film and now the embargo has broken, some critics have made love to it (mostly the AICN crowd, and their former writer Drew McWeeny) but those serious minded critics, who are usually the strongest support for the Coens, are feeling a little left out.
The reason seems to be that the Coens have dropped their familiar and high-energy style for a genre piece, a straight-laced, decidedly old-school Western that if it were black-and-white you would think was made in 1954 by John Ford. Of course by making a genre piece, you not only decrease your chances of Awards support because it won’t stand-out from the genre’s long history but also because you mostly only appeal to die-hard fans of that kind of film.
Regardless of what people think, debuting the film in this way has certainly meant Paramount’s True Grit is the only movie on everyone’s lips right now.
True to their word, the Coens have stayed faithful to the novel by Charles Portis, and closely adapted that source material rather than delivering a remake of the 1969 Western – a classic more for it’s Oscar winning and iconic late-career turn from John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.
Coens’ movie finds Jeff Bridges stepping into the shoes of John Wayne as the drunken U.S. Marshall who along with a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) are tracking down the killer (Josh Brolin) of a young girl’s father (Hattie Steinfeld). The performances are universally being praised, with Bridges, Damon and Steinfeld ‘shoe-in’s for Awards glory, it seems.
We’ll start, as we always do, with top critic Todd McCarthy, now at The Hollywood Reporter who clearly welcomed the graft and masterstroke of the film but mourned the lack of humour or reasoning;
A story of pursuit and sought-after justice that places in stark relief the main characters’ strengths and failings, this wintery work is well played and superbly crafted but hits largely familiar notes, giving it a one-dimensional feel without much dramatic or emotional resonance.
Startlingly, however, what the Coens have given up is humor. To readers of Portis’ novel, which was a critical and commercial hit when published in 1968, the crackling, colloquial, often laugh-out-loud hilarious dialogue seemed almost ready-made for any screenwriter to more or less lift it intact.
There are few if any filmmakers with austere rock-star chops like Joel and Ethan Coen, but you can’t call a movie a home run just because it’s smartly assembled. Craft only gets you so far. The film has to be about something that matters to many if not most people. And I am telling you that True Grit, while beautifully made with some deliciously formal old-west dialogue (much of it straight from the Charles Portis novel, I gather) and a smart, spunky debut performance from Hallie Steinfeld, is essentially a cold and mannered “art” western that matters not.
Anne Thompson seems to have the definitive word on the film, saying the Coens are “at the top of their game, honoring the great John Ford with a tip of the hat to Anthony Mann”) but “critics may be mixed on this slow-paced western character study, which does not function as an action picture” and that the film “may work for older filmgoers and a holiday family crowd. But the film’s archaic, formal style and florid period language, which will be admired by the Academy’s writing branch, may prove too formidable a barrier to a mass audience.”.
Sasha Stone at Awards Daily has the same feeling, as does Kris Tapley… “it’s fair to say it bears more of a resemblance to the work of Anthony Mann, John Ford and Budd Boetticher than it does that of the Coens. The film isn’t focused on being as tight and complete as most of their films, and indeed, inchoate was very much a goal here.”
The AICN-crowd couldn’t be more pleased with the film. Harry Knowles calls it his favourite film of the year and one of the Coens top two of all time, and his colleague Quint says it belongs alongside “The Wizard of Oz, The Maltese Falcon and John Carpenter’s The Thing in the very small group of remakes that are superior to the originals”. Their former colleague Drew McWeeny at Hifix share the same kind of sentiment;
The result is one of the most crowd-pleasing films I think the Coens have ever made, accessible and simple and mythic and beautiful, and like the best Westerns, it contains a sadness that is innate to the period. This is probably the warmest film they’ve made since “Fargo,” and it’s a reminder of just how sincere and close to the surface the sentiment was in “Raising Arizona,” a film that always brings me to tears in its closing moments. “True Grit” is a beautiful movie in a very quiet, adult way, and yet it’s a film that I think young people could see because of the high adventure that underscores it all.
Of course, this is just the first batch of Awards reaction to True Grit with much more to come over the coming weeks. At this point, we know just what we always did and that’s True Grit along with Bridges, Damon and Steinfeld will get nominated but perhaps we are seeing that the film may not strongly challenge the top prize as we thought.
True Grit opens December 22nd in the U.S. and early January in the U.K.