by David Yearsley, January 13, 2011
The Coen brothers’ train chugs across the expanse of American cinema’s history, stopping periodically so the pair can throw open the window and direct their lens at one Hollywood genre after the other, picking them off like plains bison. From their debut film, the neo-noir Blood Simple (1984) through the gangster piece, Miller’s Crossing (1990) to the screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and many other movies in between and since, the pair has been felling these beasts with sure-fire aim.
It can be fun, especially in Coen comedies, to admire their marksmanship and applaud their wit — the way they wield their weapons and then fry up the meat with spicy nouvelle touches. But there is often the nagging sense that it’s all a pointless slaughter — and I don’t mean only the Coens’ penchant for screening violence. The virtuosic displays of cleverness and the exercises in cinematic references often risk becoming coy and self-serving. That the films are well-crafted and smart often makes these tendencies all the more grating. Hunting buffalo turns out to be a lot like shooting fish in a barrel.
Seated alongside the illustrious brothers’ in their train compartment during their entire, hugely successful journey has been their trusty composer, Carter Burwell. He teamed up with the Coens a quarter century ago; Blood Simple was Burwell’s first film score, and he had no experience or credits before starting into the project. Burwell has done dozens of soundtracks since, often producing three or four a year, with a Coen brother film thrown in at regular intervals. One can survey these diverse offerings, and listen to excerpts from the scores on Burwell’s excellent website (called, with more than a touch of mystification, The Body ).
Already in the first decade of the their collaboration, it was clear that the Coens and Burwell made good traveling companions, the composer adept at getting to the sonic marrow of their kills — from the dark Minimalism of Blood Simple to the winking Romanticism of The Hudsucker Proxy.
A few years ago the Coen locomotive with Burwell onboard at last crossed into the Western territories. Their first stop was the 1980s terrain of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007). These adventures on the Texas-Mexico border made the brothers heroes out on The Coast, the film bringing in four Academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Director(s). Burwell’s score was disqualified from Oscar contention by the arbitrary and self-serving Academy rules on soundtracks nominations, which the composer dissects in one of the engaging essays on his website.
Now, with their re-make of True Grit the Coens have shot and stuffed the original animal: so often, in the sights of big game hunters, the Western species refuses to go extinct.
The original 1969 movie adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel, which won for the dismal John Wayne one of those silly golden statuettes for Best Actor, had a soundtrack by the legendary Elmer Bernstein. His own neo-Western score for Hud from 1963 manages to be both elegiac and restive, poignant yet unsentimental. By contrast, Bernstein’s music for True Grit is jocular and genre-true: it is full of loping, get-along-little-doggies bass-lines and jangling tambourines, and crowned by a title song with soaring 60s strings, heroic vocal lines, above a back-beat, trap-set shuffle that prods the doggerel lyric down the not-so-dusty trail. (The pain of it will ease a bit / When you find a man with true grit.”) Even if Bernstein’s score doesn’t poke fun at the Western, the composer at least has a good time with it. The true gits of the Silver Screen, chief among them Wayne, are being crooned over in the darkened lounge: this isn’t rawhide, but pure naugahyde. The songs and choral effusions that erupt in so many “classics” by John Ford and others are sonic testimony to the fact that the Western is by definition a myth. The movies and their soundtracks are dedicated to the operatic ennoblement of Manifest Destiny: the genre’s free-range status was always pure packaging.
The problem with the Coen brothers’ True Grit and with its score is not authenticity, but earnestness. The teenage heroine, Mattie Ross (played by (Hailee Steinfeld), who narrates the novel and, on occasion, the Coens’ film, seeks not only vengeance for the murder of her father by the dim-witted criminal Tom Chaney, but also justice. She insists that the killer, who’s lit out for the Indian Territory, be returned to Arkansas and tried and hanged where the black deed was done. Through determination, guile, and a shrewd business sense she buys an unlikely alliance with a gruff and gun-happy Federal Marshal (played by Jeff Bridges) and a dandyish, bounty-hunting Texas Ranger (Matt Damon). With tenacity and intelligence far beyond her age and, in the misogynistic world she inhabits, her gender, Mattie ventures out with her unlikely posse into the Near West of Oklahoma — never mind that we see some snow-capped mountains of the farther West transplanted to the Indian Territory. In the fantasy world of the Coens, such appropriation of cinematic signs can easily be explained away as a knowing nod to the rugged vistas required by the genre, seen most famously and fatuously in John Ford’s Monumental Valley backdrops. One can only be true to the Western by cheating reality.
The unyielding, sanctimonious nature of Mattie’s quest and character are reflected in the preponderance of 19th-century Protestant hymns used in the score. Burwell has interesting things to say about Paramount Pictures attempts to prevent him from acknowledging these sources, not only because of the studios’ fears that the original composers’ heirs might launch monetary claims, but also because Paramount hoped to get an Oscar nomination for the soundtrack to bolster the films publicity. Nevertheless, a week ago the Academy barred the score precisely because of its reliance on pre-existing material; even the pagans of Tinseltown can apparently recognize a forthright hymn when they hear one. Exactly why this standard regarding appropriation should apply to music and not to derivative movies, such as True Grit itself, is as obscure and wrong-headed as the Academy’s infamous aesthetic judgments.
The soundtrack’s rough-hewn sacred melodies are first heard on solo piano during Mattie’s opening voice-over: one supposes it to be the perfectly tuned instrument of the old lady narrator’s drawing room, as opposed to a battered saloon upright. (She’s not playing those hymns because she’s lost an arm in pursuit of justice.) The well-maintained keyboard is joined at various times for later bits of narration and at crucial speeches (as when the wounded Texas Ranger bids a premature farewell to the girl) by a chamber group of strings. Even when it is heard above a full orchestra, the piano seems intended to evoke Mattie’s puritanical pursuit of justice and frigid morality. The style and orchestration of all these hymns and their placement beneath eloquent monologues recalls the PBS Civil War documentary in which historic letters are read as the camera scans still photographs of soldiers and battlefields, to the sounds of sentimental Victorian parlor music. The hymns of the new True Grit are the audio equivalent of the Ken Burns’ effect in all its nostalgic piety.
Even when leafing through the Protestant hymnal the filmmakers could not suppress their need to be clever: the movie’s abundant use of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” echoes the solo singing of that same tune by Robert Mitchum’s psychopath in The Night of the Hunter. This cinematic allusion hardly absolves with the ointment of irony the Coen’s aestheticization of brutality in True Grit. Perhaps the Coens are planning a sequel in which the murderous Night of the Hunter preacher stalks into Mattie’s Arkansas boudoir.
Burwell lets the harmonic’s language of these hymns, especially their plagal (“Amen”) cadences, inform his original music, too. The results are as thin and scrubby as the scenery of ersatz-Oklahoma: scratch the surface and you won’t find sonic gold. When he’s not lifting the dampers on piety, Burwell is retrofitting Hollywood clichés, most egregiously in the open fifths and modal melodies given to “exotic” oboe or clarinet for the film’s few Indians, who get kicked and hanged without a chance for last words — their brutal treatment a kind of backdoor political correctness. It was well into the film that we at last got a panoramic shot of grasslands accompanied by the obligatory two-minute free-range horn concerto that made me think that a few frames of subliminal sirloin had been cut into the reel.
The best musical moment in the movie comes not from the score but from the ons-creen action, when Jeff Bridges, fresh from his Oscar-winning performance as a troubled singer in Crazy Heart, belts out a gravelly tune while drunk on the back of his horse. Sadly, that brazen ode didn’t make it onto the soundtrack CD.
This True Grit feels false — like a fake, if violent, photo album. As Mattie looks back on her teenage adventure from the metaphorical piano stool or from the the American Gothic family grave where Marshall Cogburn has been interred, nothing really seems so rough or difficult about the Ol’ West — from killing people to freezing your ass off under a single blanket on the Winter prairie or even amputating a limb.
The Coens and Burwell have bagged the Western with churchy strains and orchestral tropes that leave one feeling as emotionally uninvested in the movie as its heroine has been in her life. The film takes its pretense of piety far too seriously. The soundtrack bathes a middling Technicolor picture in maudlin sepia.