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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. True Grit


True Grit (Four Stars)

U.S.: Ethan and Joel Coen, 2010 (Paramount)
       The Western is one of the great America movie myths, and the Coen Brothers’ new version of Charles Portis’ novel, “True Grit” seems to me one of the great movie Westerns.  America movies and American literature should join hands more often, and as wondrously well, as they do in this movie, a crackerjack yarn that gives us what many of the best Westerns do: a great chase, a great gufight, and a touchig platonic love affair between a lawman and a lady. Not so much a remake of the well-loved 1969 Henry Hathaway-directed True Grit, with John Wayne, as another shot at Portis’ highly-praised novel, it’s an excellent movie, as entertaining as the Hathaway version, yet also darker and deeper, more literate, more dramatic. The Coen edition has truth and grit — the power of popular moviemaking, and the purity of myth.

 Initially, it’s a beguiling tale. Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old tomboy heroine of the new  True Grit is the kind of spunky, indomitable little kid we’d have all liked to have known, or to have been, or to have gone with on adventures. She‘s like a Western version of Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or maybe a girl Huck Finn, riding a beautiful, faithful horse through a sometimes scarily fantastic, sometimes bitterly realistic landscape filled with real-life monsters and gunslingers.

 Traveling through the Old West of the 1870’s in search of her father‘s ex-employee and murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), tagging along behind a sometimes drunken U S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the Wayne role), and an exasperated Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who wants to get rid if her, Mattie never seems to let anything (except once) faze her. And the actress who plays Mattie, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld (a newcomer from TV) doesn’t flinch or falter either.

These are superb performances (Bridges, Damon, Brolin and Steinfeld) in superbly written parts, in a great movie — and also a quintessential Coen Brothers movie. The Coens, in their prime right now, are the modern kings of neo-noir, and this is Western neo-noir. They‘re also among the most literate of contemporary moviemakers: darkly comic chroniclers of a parched, deadly, mostly Western American landscape populated with citizens, cops, sharpsters, killers, loonies, phonies, and some innocent people who somehow survive it all.

True Grit is constructed as a revenge western. But, in true Coen fashion, it sprawls all over the genre map: dark comedy, light comedy, buried romance (love buried under the revenge), “coming of age“ tale, horror movie, neo-noir, revisionist history, tall tale. In the beginning, Mattie talks to us and we like to listen. A likable if very serious lass, she discovers her father’s murder, cleans up his affairs, and uses part of the money to hire Rooster, a sloppy-looking but reputedly deadly U. S. Marshall, to track the killer down — thereby plunging herself into a world of murder and lawlessness, most ladylike teenage girls never see.

There’s a scary comicalityand dissonance between this movie’s narrator and her subject. The teenage Mattie, face impassive as a young nurse tending a troublesome patient, maintains equanimity, good manners and her faith in the Lord, in the hairiest of situations. She never loses her cool, whether she’s engaged in a heated business discussion with the local bigwig horse dealer Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), left on the dock with the ferry leaving, plumb in the middle of several shootouts and eyewitness to a number of cold-blooded killings (including some by her allies), forced to shinny up a tree to its loftiest branches to cut loose a hanged man’s corpse being picked at by buzzards, kidnapped by a sociopath with a rifle and harried by a gang of oddballs, shot at by miscreants, or thrown into a cave full of rattlesnakes with a murderer lurking outside.

A girl after my own heart! And also after the hearts of many people who read the 1968 book by Southerner and ex-journalist Charles Portis, or who saw the well-loved 1969 movie, with Duke Wayne in his Oscar winning performance as Rooster, Kim Darby and C&W singer Glen Campbell (“Rhinestone Cowboy”)  as Mattie and LaBoeuf, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Jeff Corey among the various outlaws, Strother Martin as the horse dealer, the great Lucien Ballard behind the camera (in the same year Ballard also shot The Wild Bunch), Elmer Bernstein Magnificent Seven-ing up the sound track and, at the helm, the celebrated hard-ass director Henry Hathaway.

Joel and Ethan Coen, director-writers of the classics Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, have a style (and tempers) a world away from Hathaway (except, perhaps, for the mutual strong taste of all three for film noir). In any case, the Coens’ True Grit is very different, in style, tone and attack — though the screenplays are surprisigly close.

The 1969 Grit scenarist was Marguerite Roberts, a brilliant, hard-nosed longtime screenwriter and the daughter of an actual Western wagon train traveler. (Roberts was also an ex-blacklist victim, something that the arch-conservative Duke Wayne chose to ignore.) Many of the scenes in both movies are the same, and so is a lot of the dialogue, which obviously comes from the novel. I got a big thrill when Barry Pepper, as Lucky Ned Pepper (the Duvall part), and Bridges as Rooster, reprised that spine-chilling interchange: “Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!” (Lucky Ned), and “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”(Rooster.)

What the Coens have done with True Grit is alter its mood and overall vision, darkening it considerably, while keeping most of the story and characters intact, and adding material from the novel that wasn‘t used — all to make it both more nightmarish (more noir) and more believable, to give it a heightened sense of danger and madness. All of this is as perceived by Mattie, who believes so staunchly in a moral, Heaven-bossed universe run by a loving but fatherly and justice-minded God — but who also wants a good killer on her side.

Hathaway’s Grit, which I like a great deal, takes place in a beautiful National Park world of green valleys, healthy forests, rushing rivers, and high mountains stretched against halcyon blue skies, a ‘50s movie Western world we’d like to stay in, if only there were less gunplay. The world of the Coens’ True Grit is drearier, cloudier, dustier, more notably ravaged by the Civil War, by lawlessness and by the Puritan ethic: a horrific landscape of frequent slaughter, a place a bit dim and smoky-gray and even Edgar Allen Poe-ish, where corpses are commodities, where  hero and villain alike shoot people in the back, and the sky seems oftentimes chillingly overcast and dour, dwarfing the death dealers wandering below. It’s a world as close to Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) as it is to Mark Twain, as near to Faulkner as it is to Ford.

The same things happen, but the emphasis is different, the light colder. In Hathaway’s “Grit,” Duke Wayne’s Rooster is avuncular and genial, like a kindly colorful, raffish uncle/politician who drinks too much. His anecdotes often seem to be semi-tall tales he‘s spinning or embroidering (a bit) to amuse Mattie. In the Coen Grit, we believe almost every damned thing Rooster says (unless he‘s on the witness stand), and what he says is often pretty damned scary (as well as what he doesn’t say, about Lawrence, Kansas, for instance). Scary too are the people we meet: like one gent in a bearskin suit they run across, transporting a corpse.

So, in a way, is Jeff Bridges, in one of his most stunning, unexpected, and brilliantly pulled-back performances. In some ways, Bridges’ Rooster carries the whole dark, wild weight of America‘s frontier ethic and the tragedy of the Civil War years behind him. Wayne’s Rooster was expansive and genial, a gifted speechifier with a sure sense of his audience (including his best friend, a little cat) who’s told his stories a hundred times and knows where all the laugh lines are (“Well, come see a fat old man some day!”), but keeps it all alive. Duke’s Rooster was drunken and slovenly (as well as fat and old, though Wayne wore a hairpiece). But, in most ways, he was more “civilized” than Bridges’ Rooster.

Bridge‘s Rooster is a man on believably intimate terms with death, to whom it’s a job he knows all too well. But he’s no speechifier. When we first hear hear Bridges’ speaking voice for Rooster — a glum, gruff monotone, rattling like dry corn husks in his old throat, a delivery of crushing emotional barrenness in which he seems to be always swallowing and chewing a few words as he expectorates others — it’s a bit of a shock.

Bridges, one of the most likable of all American movie actors, doesn’t seem to be doing much at all to make us like Rooster, beyond observing proper courtroom deportment (so he’ll get paid). Other than doing his job with minimum fuss, Rooster at first doesn’t seem to give much of a damn about anything or anybody in the world, except his maybe his landlord, the opium-smoking Mr. Lee. And whiskey, of course. And eventually, Mattie.

Bridges and the Coens could have played Rooster for comedy, as Wayne did, and audiences probably would have loved him, loved the movie, as they still love Hathaway‘s. That the Coens and Bridges choose to downplay comedy, something at which they’re all experts (The Big Lebowski!), is a pretty brave choice.

Mattie keeps saying she picked Rooster because she was told he had true grit. But maybe what truly swayed her was the description of Marshal Cogburn as the “meanest” of the man hunters available.  And Rooster has a rep for bloodshed. He rode with Quantrill‘s Raiders, bloodiest of the Civil War Rebel guerilla bands, the troop behind the massacre at Lawrence, Kansas. (Remember Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil?)

Rooster though still defends Quantrill, and when he talks to Mattie, about that or anything, it’s blunt, weird and heartfelt. His voice rumbles away like an ill-used machine he only pulls out for trials and depositions, and you get the sense, as Wayne never gave us,  that Rooster has barely talked to anyone much for all these years, at least in the stiff but unguarded way he opens up to Mattie. Instead, he’s a solitary drinker whom the world ignores (unless they need his services).

Bridges plays Rooster as a melancholy man, a killer and a drunk who works for the law but doesn’t really socialize with it. Wayne played him as a tough old gunslinging raconteur, the life of the party, with lots of salty, funny stories. (Bridges’ Rooster is more like a sadder version of Wayne‘s stoic wanderer Ethan Edwards, in John Ford’s The Searchers, and there’s one scene where the Coens frame Bridges against an open doorway, just like the famous “Searchers“ opening and closing silhouette shots.)

There are some other first-class performances in the Coen’s Grit, just as there were in Hathaway’s. Damon plays the naiveté and soldier-boy rectitude of LaBoeuf with a real heartland uprightness and fervor. Barry Pepper is fine as Ned Pepper, though he‘s no Duvall. Josh Brolin, who had a great year — he also played the sneaky guilt-ridden writer in Woody Allen‘s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger — does mean, heartless outlawry to perfection as Tom Chaney. One look at Chaney’s slack jaw and glittering eyes, one listen to his sloppy drawl, and you know he’ll shoot anyone in the back, though he’ll maybe count to ten before he shoots his grandmother. Dakin Matthews deserves a really fine compliment: he’s just as good as Strother Martin.

 Hailee Steinfeld has the film’s key role and in the end, she nails Mattie’s spunk and brains and deliberate non-flirtatiousness and sobriety. We believe her, all the way.

Hathaway and Roberts kept the story‘s darkness, but they gave it a sunnier frame. The Coens, by the end, flood the screen with a sense of loss, anguish, irrecoverable times. They remind us, as they did in Blood Simple and Fargo (two films that point right ahead to the mood and style of True Grit) that, no matter how much we laugh at anecdotes of grisliness and death, someone must always pay the price.

By the way, there‘s a haunting tune which threads all though the Coen’s True Grit, played in a spare tinkly piano version, and then bursts forth under the credits, as a full-blown gospel song, sung with honeyed clarity by Iris DeMent. It’s “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms“ — and , if I were a betting man, I’d wager the Coens remembered it from the same movie I do, that we all do. It‘s the hymn that the evil preacher man Robert Mitchum kept singing in The Night of the Hunter, the movie (remember?) about two innocent young children, lost in a world of horrors and murder. Hearing the hymn again in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, you sense irony, and dark comedy, and also a sheer love of the brave sentiment that drives that childlike, pure faith along, against all odds, in a world of killers, a world of death. “Leaning, leaning…Safe and secure from all alarms…Leaning, leaning…Leaning on the everlasting arms…”  Like all the great gospel songs, like all the great movie westerns too, the song shoots straight to the heart.

Extras: Featurettes; Trailer.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon