The Coen Brothers have inoculated such an intense degree of authorial respectability around their work that they simply cannot do any wrong and whilst they have certainly made films which one could label as mediocre, average and flawed, none of this seems to have really affected their status as great film makers. Post Lebowski, the Coen’s oeuvre for me has fallen short of their earlier and much more creative works such as Raising Arizona, Blood Simple and the masterful Barton Fink. They have been careful not to abandon their independent roots by selling out and allowing themselves to become subsumed into the mainstream. Whilst overt artistic compromises may have not taken place, the recent slew of prolific films have pointed to a gradual yet uncertain shift into the mainstream. A film like True Grit carries with it the discriminatory award season baggage thus the critical opinion has predictably over praised its somewhat limited achievements. As a western I found it very conventional and certainly lacking in revisionist ideals. In a way, perhaps this explains why it has been so popular with audiences – it is strangely conservative and moralistic for a film from the idiosyncratic universe of the Coen Brothers. Of course, one could argue that such conservatism naturally comes out of the decision to remain true to the original source material.
This is a Fordian western that taps into a vein of American heroism far removed from the existential meditations of violence offered by Peckinpah, Leone and Eastwood. That sense of outrage, brutality and callousness is somewhat missing, thus transforming the film into an apolitical melodrama rather than a revisionist western which is what I was largely expecting. Having said that, the figure of the aging cowboy who has very little time left to make amends for his past sins was often evident in the roles played by John Wayne; the cowboy as relic and symbol of the past is one that has often interested me and I don’t think this was an aspect of Cogburn’s character that was fully explored. What the Coen’s do prove with such a traditional revenge western as True Grit is the power and appeal of genres to inhibit authorial creativity whilst simultaneously offering audiences the comforts of having their expectations fulfilled. It would be interesting to see in which parts of America True Grit has found the biggest audience because the biblical tone it strikes particularly in it’s hurried ending seems to suggest that this a film which has surely been embraced by the ‘Bible Belt’ of America.