A lack of fair proportion is evident in today’s Rotten Tomatoes ratings. 88% for The Fighter, okay. Black Swan is also at 88%, Biutiful is holding at 81% and Somewhere is at 78%. I might dispute this or that but I can live with these estimations. What I don’t get is True Grit‘s 96% rating.
I’m not a huge fan but I respect Grit for being an expertly made “straight” western with two or three exceptional set pieces, some wonderfully flavorful 19th century dialogue and a gamely spunky debut performance by Haillee Steinfeld. But it’s just not a 96. It’s not a real Coen Brothers movie, for one thing. It’s not playful or darkly funny or wicked or perverse or ironic. It’s basically about honoring the Charles Portis novel and in so doing is a dry and rather cold thing — a high-end “meh.”
The reason it has a 96% rating is that critics have been cowed by the Coens’ reputation as first-rank filmmakers. The Coens are now enjoying the same kind of wave-through reviews that Clint Eastwood has been getting since Unforgiven. Many critics have become the Coen’s bitches, in effect. And most of them have taken the easy way out with True Grit and waved it through despite the fact that it’s obviously not a brilliant and/or groundbreaking effort.
Highly proficient, yes. Full of that exacting Coen-esque current. But very few critics have had the grit to call a spade a spade, which is that True Grit is a first-rate thing that doesn’t say or mean a damn thing other than the fact that the Coens are superb filmmakers.
To me, some of True Grit‘s reviews sound absurdly overblown. IGN Films‘ Jim Vejvoda has called it “the best Western since Unforgiven.” Aisle Seat‘s Mike McGranaghan wrote that True Grit “is done with such inventiveness that I was in moviegoing ecstasy.” Total Film‘s Philip Kemp said True Grit “is the first great movie of 2011.”
Let’s come down to earth, shall we? Here are some review excerpts that challenge these hat-in-the-air sentiments.
The Toronto Globe & Mail‘s Liam Lacey: “Though No Country For Old Men and True Grit are westerns, and have their share of sardonic humour and carnage, Grit is a much tamer offering, wry rather than comic; melancholy rather than weighty. Though handsomely made and well acted, the film never completely escapes the sense that it’s an exercise in genre excavation.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “True Grit mainly functions as an elaborate homage that results in [the Coens’] most conventional outing behind the camera. It’s hard to shake the feeling that they settled for consistency over innovation…[it’s] obvious that they can do better.”
Mark Reviews Movies‘ Mark Dujsik: “True Grit, nearly on par with the original [Henry Hathaway] film, is a reliable, if insubstantial, genre piece.”
Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips: “Craft this strong should not be taken for granted. [But] It feels more like an assignment fulfilled than a passion pursued.”
Roger Ebert: “I’m surprised the Coens made this film, so unlike their other work, except in quality. This isn’t a Coen Brothers film in the sense that we usually use those words. It’s not eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky. It’s as if these two men, who have devised some of the most original films of our time, reached a point where they decided to coast on the sheer pleasure of good old straightforward artistry.”
Boston Globe‘s Wesley Morris:
“The Coens…have declawed themselves. They’re playing it straight. The sensationalistic wickedness of their most provocative work has, for one movie, been banished. This isn’t a rousing movie as much as a reassurance. The brothers prove they can play it straight, but they’re preferred, for better and worse, at a sharp angle.”
San Francisco Chronicle‘s Mick LaSalle: “My only reservation about the movie…is that watching the film it’s hard to see why the Coens wanted to make it. It’s a respectable, entertaining Western, but it’s not so radically different or innovative that their need to make it seems overpowering.”
Coming Soon‘s Ed Douglas: “The Coens do their best to mix iconic Western tropes with their own sense of style and comic timing, but their adaptation of True Grit feels fairly uninspired compared to previous efforts making it fairly blatant they should stick to their own original material in the future.”
Entertainment Weekly‘s Lisa Schwarzbaum: “What keeps us at arm’s length…is the almost reflexive Coen instinct to favor controlled surface style over emotional mess and to dote on weird slapshots of violence that don’t leave room to feel real horror. And while No Country for Old Men and especially their stunning personal drama A Serious Man nudged these always erudite, often insular filmmakers out of their comfort zone into fresh air, this more climate-controlled Western retreats to safer ground. It’s just tasty enough to leave movie lovers hungry for a missing spice.”