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"True Grit" opened last week to much fanfare and acclaim. A couple of friends I've spoken to about the film have said it's one of the best movies of the year, but not one of the Coen brothers' best, and I think I would agree with that.
It is a damn fine film, but there's something frustrating about the Coens choosing to make it. As both an adaptation and a remake, its strengths are based on the Coens staying out of the way of the story. Which is to say, you can hardly do better than to simply transcribe Charles Portis' virtuoso dialogue from the novel. That, along with action sequences that mirror the scintillating second half of the novel (and 1969 film adaptation), means the movie leans almost wholly on its bloodline rather than any new interpretation the Coens bring. For the greatest filmmakers of our day, then, it seems like low-hanging fruit.
That's right: the greatest filmmakers of our day, and among the greatest filmmakers ever. It's always difficult for people, especially artists, to compliment their contemporaries. For the competitor/ape in us, I suppose we still consider greatness as some sort of threat. We wait till an artist is dead and then over-praise them. But my questions is: Who's better? Name someone.
The Coens have made 15 feature films together over the last 25 years. That's an almost Woody Allen-level output, yet we don't have to suffer through the other two bad ones it takes to get to the one solid Allen film every few years. And I can say that almost without exception about the Coens. Even though there are films of theirs that I've liked much less than others, everything they've done is far more interesting or compelling or original than 95 percent of everything else out there.
And maybe that's what was missing for me with "True Grit": the Coens' unique brand of authorship. When you have the most distinctive voice in the industry, why adopt (and adapt) someone else's?
Consider their second film and first studio project, "Raising Arizona." How many writers, when describing their heroine's infertility, would choose to narrate the words, "Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase"? What other filmmakers would create a scene in which (in "The Big Lebowski") the words, "No, Donny. These men are nihilists. There's nothing to be afraid of," is a laugh-line? And who among contemporary screenwriters could recapture an era and genre better than the Coens with their noir endeavor, "Miller's Crossing," and lines like, "You ever notice how the snappy dialogue dries up once a man starts soilin' his union suit?"
It must be hard, even for the brilliant, in our faltering filmmaking economy. If you examine the financial returns of their movies, you'll see that their most fiscally successful projects have been "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", "Burn After Reading," and 2007's "No Country For Old Men" (another adaptation). And when you look at the Coens' oeuvre, they seem to have employed a "one or two for them/one for us" doctrine. For instance, "The Man Who Wasn't There" followed "O Brother ..." while "A Serious Man" came after "No Country for Old Men" and "Burn After Reading." The lesson here is that even the Coens can't cheat the box office hangman and must appease both the studios and the Scott Rudins of the world.
The Coens are the modern-day Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond, having succeeded in every genre they have attempted (and that's most of them). But they're better than Wilder and Diamond — I would say it after they were dead, so I might as well say it now — insofar as they're not just diversely talented or masterful at all genres, but because their mark is almost always indelible.
So, here's to your next original work, Misters Coen. Whether it's the one for them or the one for you, I don't care as long as it's yours.