Coen Brothers Redux

I am once again re-visiting the Coen Brothers and their work. While I have not had the opportunity to view True Grit, I had been, as I expressed in a previous post, excited about its release. Since then, various reviewers whom I respect have either been unenthusiastically impressed with it (David Denby and Manohla Dargis) or rather displeased by it (the James River Film Journal’s own Peter Schilling). The lack of a great gung-ho review tampered my enthusiasm to hunt for a babysitter and hardened my conviction to simply wait for Blockbuster to stock True Grit. (Yes, I know that I am still living in the ‘90s by renting videos at Blockbuster.)

Finally, though, I came across a review of True Grit that re-sparked my enthusiasm: Stanley Fish’s “Narrative and the Grace of God: The new ‘True Grit.’” I still haven’t viewed the film, but that has more to do with locating babysitters and negotiating around Tae Kwon Do lessons. (If worse comes to worse, I will feed my sons and daughter some of Jeff Bridges’s lines from the film and have them chant them as they perform their combinations and forms. I have to work with what I’ve got.)

Beyond making me a little more likely to go and see the film, Fish’s article made me recognize why I do truly like and admire some of the Coens’ work as well as re-appraise some of their work that I have previously disliked. Fish concludes his review by writing:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

Fish finds a virtue in what many have faulted: the cruelty of the world in which the Coens place their characters. Fish eagerly points out that in True Grit:

things happen, usually bad things (people are hanged, robbed, cheated, shot, knifed, bashed over the head and bitten by snakes), but they don’t have any meaning, except the meaning that you had better not expect much in this life because the brute irrationality of it all is always waiting to smack you in the face.

The situations may change, but the theme of “brute irrationality” in many Coen films remains the same. Of course, this is where Fish locates and admires the heroism of Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld). Again, he notes:

[The Coens] give us a better heroism in the person of Mattie, who maintains the confidence of her convictions even when the world continues to provide no support for them. . . . She goes forward not because she has faith in a better worldly future — her last words to us are “Time just gets away from us” — but because she has faith in the righteousness of her path, a path that is sure (because it is not hers) despite the absence of external guideposts.

I will look forward to seeing the comments of others who will undoubtedly disagree with Fish’s assessment, but, for me, his piece forced to rethink previous Coen films, particularly Fargo (1995) and A Serious Man (2009).

Both of these films contain a cruel and unforgiving universe that has parallels to the one Fish describes in True Grit. Fargo, in particular, contains some of the Coens’ most despicable film monsters. While the attempts at comic levity and the exaggerated accents might obscure the monstrosity of the film upon a first casual viewing, a more careful look illuminates a world in which horrible humans are commonplace. William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard might initially appear goofy, but his smile and overwrought accent cannot hide a loathsome disregard to the welfare and safety of his wife and child. Multiple viewings truly unmask Mr. Lundegaard as despicable.

Lundegaard eventually receives punishment, but it is not the churnings of a just world that hold him to account. No, he is captured through his own cowardice and stupidity. The universe in Fargo does not care about guilt or innocence. Casual bystanders suffer the effects of brutality and violence, and, in the end, they receive no comfort or grace. The world is as harsh as the winter landscape so beautifully rendered in the film. The frozen landscape of Fargo refuses to offer anyone comfort or warmth. It almost appears as if the land itself blatantly refuses to accept the dead bodies that fall upon its surface. It visually props them up against its white background, letting all gaze upon the violence and horror, which is yet another act of violent indifference. The land is always making the characters’ lives more difficult and increasing their pain. For me, one of the true pleasures of Fargo is watching how the luscious cinematography thematically parallels the plot.

Yet what makes the world of Fargo more palatable by far than many of the Coens’ other filmic creations is the existence of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a hero who makes the world a better place. I believe that the world of Fargo is similar to what Fish sees in True Grit, and Gunderson, similar to Mattie, believes in her own path as she doggedly forges ahead to bring justice to the victims. The universe in which Gunderson operates has no interest in whether or not she succeeds. It would not treat her any differently that Jean Lundegaard (Jerry’s wife) or the individuals in night car who were ruthlessly gunned down by Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud. (Grimsrud’s silence and ice cold murderousness seem to foreshadow Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh.) Yet she succeeds not because there is righteousness somewhere out there in the world, but because she herself is righteous.

Gunderson’s existence makes the existence of a world filled with “brute irrationality” at least endurable. Yet when those worlds lack such a figure, their bleakness and despair overwhelm. This was my experience with A Serious Man, and I am still unable to figure out why it earned an Oscar nomination for best film (aside from the fact that the Academy needed to pick ten films and randomly selected some to round out the list). Fish’s assessment of the Coens’ work has given me pause and made me re-contemplate A Serious Man, which, by design, is Jobian in its plot and theme, as many have noted. I have not yet turned the corner on it, nor do I even know if the film has a corner around which I am capable of turning.  My initial response to the film was that it was technically adept but hollow at its core.  At least the Book of Job has a God; I am not certain that A Serious Man does.

I suppose that cinema would become boring if we never reread or reassessed films about which we have made prior judgments. Before I seriously re-examine A Serious Man, I do need to view True Grit and see if it is the “truly religious movie” that Fish claims it is.  Of course, I will need a babysitter.  Any takers?


About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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