I try not to let expectations get the best of me when it comes to movies, but sometimes it's impossible to avoid it, especially when you're looking forward to the work of one of your favorite directors (or, well, two of them, in this case). Ethan and Joel Coen don't just direct and write their films; they also produce them, which isn't necessarily something that everyone will notice. Why is it an important detail? If they're the producers, they surely have some say in whether their films will be released in small independent venues first, or if they'll simply go on wide release right off the bat. The Coen brothers chose the first alternative when they released two of their most recent (and most magnificent) films: the 2007 best picture winner NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and last year's A SERIOUS MAN. But they chose the second option for their latest film, the straight-up Western TRUE GRIT. Why? Accessibility. I'm not referring to physical accessibility. I'm talking about how "accessible" a film is to the general public: is the movie mainstream enough, or is it too quirky for people's comfort?
And that, I'm sorry to say, has a lot to do with why for the first time ever, I find that I have to give a rotten rating to a Coen brothers movie. I hate to do it, because I do think that TRUE GRIT is reasonably entertaining, and as is always the case with their films, the cinematography is absolutely stunning. But those two things alone aren't quite enough to warrant a recommendation. Maybe they would be if this film had been made by someone else, but as I said, as much as I want to be objective, it's very difficult to avoid the expectations I develop when I'm looking forward to the work of filmmakers I love. I rejoiced in the delightful unconventionality of films like FARGO, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, A SERIOUS MAN, and even of 2008's not-as-great BURN AFTER READING, but when I watch something as straightforward and un-quirky as TRUE GRIT, I can't help feeling like something is missing.
The film is a tale of revenge in which a 14-year-old girl, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), sets out to avenge the death of her father. This had all the potential to be the type of story that the Coens could easily do something great with, because of how unexpected it is to have such a young character who is tough-as-nails. I think the main reason why I simply can't give TRUE GRIT a recommendation has to do with some of the things that the film wants the audience to simply "accept" as givens. Right off the bat, we're supposed to believe that Mattie is this fast-talking, incredibly-smart-beyond-her-years character. I have no problem suspending my disbelief for a juicy story, but I do have a problem if the WAY in which I'm asked to suspend my disbelief makes it hard for me to do so. We're supposed to believe that Mattie knows what the word "braggadocio" means, and that she's got the brain of a law school student, as she knows what a writ of replevin is and the difference between malum in se and malum prohibitum. In this year's earlier KICK-ASS we were also asked to suspend our disbelief and accept the fact that an 11-year-old girl was a cunning, deadly human weapon. That film earned it. I can't say the same for TRUE GRIT - in this case, the Coen brothers' usually delightful smart dialogue makes the experience awkward because it's difficult to believe it coming from this character's mouth.
There's absolutely nothing unpredictable about Mattie's pursuit of her father's murderer or about her experiences with the people who accompany her on this expedition. Like I said, I wouldn't normally mind this, but because the Coen brothers thrive so much on unconventionality, it's dispiriting. I felt a twinge of hope towards the end when, in an unexpected turn of events, it SEEMS that Mattie is about to be left alone with her father's killer and it seems that perhaps these two characters will be forced to sit alone and talk to each other without being able to physically attack one another. At this point, I was PRAYING that right here we would get a Coen-like dialogue exchange in which the killer's perspective on things would offer us something enlightening or surprising, but no. All we get is a typical final showdown, and to make things worse, the way in which the murderer is dispatched is kind of lackluster and will easily give viewers a deflating feeling: "I've been waiting an hour and a half for THAT?"
Thankfully, at certain points during the film, there are certain hints of the Coens' signature humor, which is why I'm still giving TRUE GRIT a middling review. An early scene in which Mattie engages in a battle of wits over money with an old man is hilarious, and the final outcome of the battle is brilliant. A witty moment involving the misspelling of the word "futile" is particularly funny, but then again, it made me nostalgic of the much better quips like that that we got to hear last year in A SERIOUS MAN. Some may argue that it wasn't possible for the Coens to inject the same type of quirkiness into TRUE GRIT that they have into other movies because the brothers are limited by the fact that the film is a Western and that it's based on a novel, but that argument isn't valid, because ANY filmmaker (especially people as intelligent as these two sibling directors) can cannily use creative license to give a fresh spin to a story. The Coens already did it with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (a more modern Western, sure, but it was also based on a work of literature) and the results were amazing. There was no reason not to do the same with TRUE GRIT, except perhaps to satisfy mainstream audiences and disappoint those of us who want something more sophisticated.
There's nothing wrong with young Hailee Steinfeld's performance as the little fireball in TRUE GRIT, except for the problem that I expressed already: the fact that it's impossible to believe the character's verbiage makes it impossible for the performance to go the extra mile. Jeff Bridges is getting much buzz for his performance, though it's hard not to feel like this is something he could've done in his sleep. He just plays the "mean, slightly drunk guy" routine, and during the entire film, we only get to see one of his eyes, so it's not like he has much space to exhibit much range. You certainly can't compare this to the greatness of his performance in last year's CRAZY HEART, for which he won a much-deserved Academy Award.
If you read my review of last year's A SERIOUS MAN, you may be able to understand why my feelings towards TRUE GRIT are so different. Say what you want, but there's definitely a reason why a film like A SERIOUS MAN was only released in arthouses whereas TRUE GRIT can be found in any multiplex. The former film is so much more nuanced and intelligent, and it teems with great dialogue. It's my kind of movie, and I realize that the mainstream audience doesn't feel the same way and I accept it. TRUE GRIT is a film that takes a lot less risks and is not difficult to understand at all. Most people will love it as a source of entertainment in the holiday season. But to me, it's frustratingly bland and dull. Considering what a severely weak year in cinema 2010 has been, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that TRUE GRIT turned out to be a disappointment. Unless I'm wowed by a few of the films that I'll be watching during the next few weeks, my top 10 list for this year may be one of the dreariest I've compiled in a long time. I was hoping that TRUE GRIT would be on it, but the film underwhelmed me to no end.