One of the valuable things about the Academy Awards is that they force moviegoers to consider the more subtle efforts that go into making a successful movie. It’s rare that people leave a film and say, “well, the story and the directing were mediocre, but the sound-editing was fantastic and well-worth the price of admission”. But when things work well, they’re almost always attributed to the director, even though it’s unlikely that David Fincher applied even a single daub of makeup during the filming of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which won Best Makeup in 2008).
I like that before you get to disagree with what the Academy thinks is the best film of the year, you have to sit and acknowledge the hard work and dedication of the countless Foley artists, special-effects artists, and costume designers who generally get no credit whatsoever.
So while you’re watching True Grit this holiday season, you should revel in the Coen brothers prodigious talent and Jeff Bridges’s phlegmy rasp. But you should also consider that the film is most accurately understood as the product of a razor-sharp team of adept craftsmen that the Coen brothers have gathered around them over the last thirty years, and that without their contributions the film would almost certainly be a lesser thing than it is.
These people can be buried far in the background - like Peter Kurland, who was a boom operator on the brothers’s first film, 1984’s Blood Simple and has worked on their production sound in some capacity on every of their efforts since.
But they can also be people key to the success of the film, like Carter Burwell. Burwell has composed the score to every one of the Coen brothers films and found the time to work on films like Where the Wild Things Are and Being John Malkovich.
Burwell’s work on True Grit rivals any other score he has produced, though I think it falls short of his efforts for 1991’s Miller’s Crossing. I am biased, though, for Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorite films, and it shares with True Grit a love of genre and of its gentle tweaking.
Miller’s Crossing also marked the end of the brothers’s long collaboration with then-cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who would thereafter satisfy himself directing middling comedy films. But into the void left by Sonnenfeld stepped Roger Deakins, and through his work since – both with the Coen brothers and not – Deakins has cemented himself as the greatest cinematographer of our time.
He has worked on every Coen brothers film in the last twenty years save one: 2008’s Burn After Reading, during which he was otherwise engaged. That’s a run that includes Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and The Man Who Wasn’t There. He has also found the time to shoot The Shawshank Redemption, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Jarhead, among others. For this he has been studiously overlooked by the Academy, and if that streak continues with True Grit, it will be a tremendous shame. If the film contains a shot anything less than spectacular, I did not see it.
My point with all this is: film is a collaborative medium. And like Commander Shepard or Hannibal Smith, the Coen brothers have spent the last thirty years building themselves the best damn team they could find. The result is a film that finds not only the director but every crew member, from the top on down, working at the very height of their ability. And that’s a rare thing.