True Grit: Post-Art Coen Brothers

True GritThe Coen Brothers’ True Grit is a huge disappointment. To start, did we really have to make this tiresome film again? To end, did we really have to do it so badly? So unartfully? Have the Coens taken the advice of the Mothers of Invention’s third album: are they only in it for the money?

However, I did like some of the film. Without a doubt, the best scenes in the film are the two between Mattie Ross and Col. Stonehill. In particular, their second meeting is hilarious:

Mattie: You have not traded poorly.

Stonehill: Oh, certainly not! I’m paying you for a horse I do not possess and have bought back a string of useless ponies, which I cannot sell again.

Mattie: You are forgetting the grey horse.

Stonehill: Crowbait![1]

Mattie: You are looking at the thing in the wrong light.

Stonehill: I am lookin’ at it in the light of God’s eternal truth.

Mattie: Your illness is putting you down in the dumps… You will soon find a good buyer for the ponies.

Stonehill: Oh, I have a tentative offer for ten dollars per head from the Pfitzer Soap Works of Little Rock.

Mattie: It would be a shame to destroy such spirited horseflesh.

Stonehill: So it would. I am confident the deal will fall through.

Mattie: Look here. I need a pony, and I will pay ten dollars for one of them.

Stonehill: No. That is the lot price. No, no, it’d… Wait a minute… Are we trading again?

Unfortunately, that is about all that is good about it. However, somehow critics and audiences alike thought it was a great film. Has everyone forgotten when the Coens made art instead of entertainment? Of course, I understand that they have always been uneven. They sandwiched the dreadful Raising Arizona between two excellent films (Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing) followed by the great Barton Fink. But Raising Arizona is not bad for lack of trying. True Grit is a workmanlike film that could almost as easily have been directed by the horrible Jon Favreau. Good job Joel and Ethan: you can make successful tripe with the best of them!

I must admit, however, that I am tired of the Rooster Cogburn form of lovable rogue. He is a homicidal psychopath. Popularly, people have the wrong idea about psychopaths. They don’t go around hurting people willy-nilly. They find ways to manipulate their culture into accepting or even celebrating their propensities. The first thing we learn about Cogburn is that he suffers from constipation. The second thing is that he has murdered 23 people in the previous four years. I do not mind when the main character of fiction is an evil person. I do mind when the creators of that fiction are not aware of this fact. And the Coens are not. To them, Rooster is just a lovable rogue.

Of course, none of the three main characters are without problems. LaBoeuf (well acted by Matt Damon), the character we are supposed to like the least, is a good man in the universe of the film. Mattie is wonderful in her intelligence, but her Old Testament religiosity is abhorrent. She’s a Deuteronomy girl all the way: vengeance is mine!

Even as entertainment, the film fails. Jeff Bridges can barely be understood. After they leave town, the movie is predictable and boring. This I will say, however: at least it doesn’t star that great Academy Award winning actor John Wayne!

Update (8 February 2016 3:30 pm)

I think I was too hard on the Coen Brothers here. But I stand by the main point.

[1] Crowbait is a term from western America in the mid-nineteenth century. It means an emaciated, worn-out horse. Think Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante and you’ve got it. Great word!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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