Lasman: No country for old Westerns

Beartrap

‘True Grit,” the Coen brothers’ latest foray into bleak landscapes and bleaker psyches, is that rarest of cinematic phenomena — a critical and commercial success. Financially, it has far eclipsed the director/writer duo’s “No Country for Old Men,” which bagged a Best Picture Oscar in 2007 and earned over $110 million in three weeks.

Given that “True Grit” is by far the most conventional film the brothers have made in a long time, this success may seem unsurprising. Now and then the movie tips its hat to oddball eccentricity: for example, the arrival of a loony medicine man dressed in an ursine Lady Gaga set piece, or an outlaw who speaks entirely in farm animal sounds. But the fundamental format of gunpowder-fueled revenge harks back to an era when the Western was the American film par excellence, inspiring foreign filmmakers from Italy to Japan.

“True Grit” has also been successful in breaking into markets where the Coen brothers’ work had previously failed to establish the collegiate cult appeal that made them a dorm room, if not household, name. The New York Times quotes Rob Moore, the vice chairman of Paramount, who cites the film’s “middle-American, heartland”-friendly themes to explain its success in places like Plano, Tex. and Olathe, Kan. Comparisons have been made to “The Blind Side,” whose Bible Belt success may have contributed to Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress Oscar, even in the face of critical indifference and questionable racial politics. Wesley Morris ’97 may have described the football fantasia best in The Boston Globe: “Commercial American movies seem interested in stories about young black men saved from God-knows-what by nice white people or sports. Here it’s both.”

Likewise, there is something uncomfortable about the success of “True Grit.” John Patterson of The Guardian noted the film’s lack of cynicism as a sign of the Coen’s “creative maturity.” And yet that cynicism was key to the power of “No Country for Old Men,” a better film that is undeniably Western in setting but worlds apart in ethos. It is a film that rejects heroism and the redemptive power of vigilante violence. Down to its villain’s weapon of choice — a stunbolt gun, typically employed to incapacitate animals in the slaughterhouse — “No Country” boldly questioned the limits of the American culture of bloodshed, as well as the idea that one good man with a gun could stop a bevy of bad ones. To quote its character Uncle Ellis, the film suggested that “you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

No such questions trouble “True Grit.” In true Western fashion, it yearns for an extrajudicial solution to human conflict. Beginning with courtroom and gallows and ending with some spectacular blood feuding, the film functions as an almost perfect map of the moral universe of the genre. A fair trial is fine, but no substitute for blowing your father’s killer off a bluff with a shotgun. “No Country” leaves its aging lawman disillusioned by the very idea of heroism; “True Grit,” in stunning contrast, makes Jeff Bridges embody that ideal in a feat of spectacular bravery. It is a classic Western insofar as it levies a two-pronged attack on a society that places faith in the legal process and would prefer that 14-year-olds not wield firearms.

Perhaps Westerns provide a violent and cathartic remedy to the abstracted civility of legalism. There is something awe-inspiring about the American justice system, which asks that we refer to Jared Lee Loughner as “the suspect” in the Jan. 8 killing spree that rocked our political discourse to its roots. No matter that he was tackled at the scene of the massacre, in front of scores of terrified witnesses — if I may thesaurusize, for now we can only “conjecture” about his guilt. There are no suspects or suspicions in the “True Grit” universe — nor are there concealed weapons laws (nor animal rights, for that matter — the body count of horses and snakes nearly equals that of men).

“True Grit” has been heralded as “bringing the Western back.” Back from where? Presumably from the spiritual ambivalence that the late ’60s cast over the genre, when a country exhausted with violence could no longer enthusiastically stomach its silver-screen endorsement. “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and many other films all sought to dispute the equivalence of Stetsoned gun-toting with the moral high ground. If “True Grit” is indeed bringing the Western back from that uncertain territory, it may not be a cause to celebrate, but rather to question what we have forgotten. The near-assassination of a Congresswoman has disturbed us. Will it take a more successful gunman to shake us awake?

Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.

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