Joel and Ethan Coen have gone mainstream, and done it well. Previously known for their wry, postmodern takes on genre cinema, this offering is a straightforward Western – and Hollywood has responded by nominating it heavily in the upcoming academy awards.
The hype has been about 14 year-old protagonist Hailee Steinfeld (who is very good) and UK critics have also lauded Matt Damon for his comedic turn as Texas ranger LaBoeuf. My favourite was Jeff Bridges’ beardy, gravelly mess of a US marshal, Rooster Cogburn. It’s a joyously over-the-top performance, Bridges lurching about the screen and employing the most languid of drawls to get maximum effect out of seemingly innocuous lines such as “That did not pan out” after a botched gunfight.
One episode, when little Hailee barters with a horse-owner over his debts to her father, recalls the famous coin-toss sequence from the Coens’ No Country For Old Men: shop setting, sharp one-on-one dialogue and a conspicuous shift in power. It’s nicely written and delivered, but lacks the emotional gravitas and tension of that earlier scene, therefore serving as a handy microcosm of how I felt about the film in general: highly accomplished and consistently enjoyable without ever quite reaching the heights of some of the brothers’ more anarchic previous work.
The Coens have always been great at memorable cameos, and most striking here is a man who emerges from the snowy forest on horseback wearing a full bearskin, complete with head. His huge, white beard doubles as the bear’s chest. It’s a brilliant image, but its impact is ruined by the fact that it also appears in the film’s ubiquitous trailer. Infuriating – and Black Swan suffered hugely from the same problem earlier this month. I might start simply shutting my eyes before films begin in future.
Anyway I’m glad awards season is nearing its end – with cinemas dominated by contenders, I’ve seen enough solid, well-acted, unobjectionable dramas in the last six weeks to start sending anyone slightly barmy. Now to find the next Coen brothers.