A competent but cruel ranch owner terrorizes his brother's new family.
Directed by Jane Campion
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Kirsten Dunst
Review by Jon Kissel
Australian director Jane Campion has been in business since the 80’s but as far as anyone but the diehard cinephile is concerned, she’s only got The Piano to her name. Her other films don’t have much of a footprint, despite starring major actors like Nicole Kidman, Meg Ryan, and Kate Winslet. They hover in the 40-60% Rotten Tomatoes range, marking them as difficult and contentious amongst the critical community. However, the wake of her latest, The Power of the Dog, would have a viewer believe that she’s one of the greatest living filmmakers, accompanied as it is by retrospectives and reappraisals of her work. Having only seen The Piano, as well as her Top of the Lake miniseries with Elisabeth Moss, and liking and admiring them both, Campion’s a director who hasn’t missed but at the same time, I’ve never felt a need to seek out something like Bright Star or The Portrait of a Lady. After The Power of the Dog, I can comfortably slot her into a place of respectability and precision, though she continues to have never made a movie that’s knocked me off my feet. Her take on a Western, and her first film without a female lead, is impeccably made and features a better twist than anything in a Shyamalan movie, but it’s also much slighter than I expected and almost beneath someone of Campion’s reputation. This isn’t a mysterious movie with characters whose motives are always cloudy and unknown even to themselves, but is instead fairly heavy-handed ethics-wise with whiffs of slobs-versus-snobs dynamics from the National Lampoon days. Campion sure does know how to make the sensory feeling of something come through on screen, though.
Tom Hanks, America’s dad, lives into his reputation in News of the World. In Paul Greengrass’ western, Hanks rides from town to town in post-Civil War Texas, telling the townsfolk in a calm and entertaining manner what’s happening outside of their communities. He’s the personification of the future nightly newsman, showing up in households as a comforting presence who filters the noise of the world into a signal. News of the World knows exactly what it has going for it with Hanks, and gives the venerable actor another role that projects competence and decency.
In Sergio Leone’s final film set in the American West, he immediately communicates something vital to the setting and to the genre. In the first scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, a trio of goons terrorize a ticket taker and stuff him in a closet while they wait for their prey. The frontier exists in America as this romantic place where society can be reinvented and started anew by anyone with the foresight and will to make their way, but some rules and customs exist for a reason, like the free exchange of goods and services or the entering into a personal transaction with good faith. If everyone in an unsettled environment is remaking the world based on strength of will, the will to dominate will win out. Our introductory goons, in service to another goon who himself is in service to a robber baron railroad tycoon, are imbued with the power to do whatever they want. If they wanted to kill the ticket taker, no one would stop them and no one would pursue them. Once Upon a Time in the West ultimately tells a happy story of the forces of domination being thwarted and the promise of the frontier being fulfilled, but it comes within a pervasive package of corruption that implies this outcome is a rare one.
For Joel and Ethan Coen, some things, like scenes that don’t seem to fit in a movie’s structure or unreliable fantasy sequences of indeterminate meaning, are expected. That makes it all the more noticeable when they leave all that stuff out. True Grit contains no Mike Yanagita sidebar, nor an eerie stagecoach ride towards what may or may not be the afterlife, but it’s still unmistakably a Coen Brothers film, and their highest-grossing one to boot. Persistently versatile and effective across genres and time periods, the Coen’s include all the hallmarks of the Western, with cowboys and Indians and outlaws and grand vistas, but they can’t help but put their pet themes of cosmic scales of justice onto a recognizable framework. The result is a thing that works, an actor’s showcase and a joyful adventure, a reminder of why Westerns have persisted for so long and a modern rejoinder to the kinds of films the Western archetype John Wayne, star of the original as this is a remake, used to churn out. True Grit is evidence that the Coen’s can be purely entertaining whenever they want to, one more gift for a pair that can do no wrong.
I picture Joel and Ethan Coen writing their scripts in their office and laughing at each other about how their films will be interpreted. Maybe they think about all the ink that will be spilled by critics and film journalists wondering why the Mike Yanagita scene is in Fargo or what the true role of John Goodman is in Barton Fink, and chuckle that they don’t actually put these mysteries in their films for any purpose other than the mystery itself. Much like several of their films, there is actually no meaning to be discerned. The Coens love coincidence with no rationale behind it and the capriciousness of an impassive and unknowable prime mover, themes that film writers aren’t big fans of because there isn’t much to write about when that is the case. The reviewer looking for answers asks ‘why did that happen’ and the Coens reply ‘why ask why?’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appears to be exactly as cosmically retributive as much of the Coens’ earlier work, with that prime mover watching from above and snatching goodness away from the characters’ grasps. Though each of the six stories feature bloody ends, this is actually something of an outlier for the duo, in that it’s obliquely beautiful in its own specific way. Joel and Ethan remain as fatalistic as ever, but nothing is so simple as the point A of birth and the point B of death. There are songs to sung and moments to be shared along the way.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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