Posts Tagged ‘True Grit (1969)’

Review – True Grit (2010) (Spoiler-Free)

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

True Grit is a true Coen Bros film. Its answers breathe in its seams.

The movie opens with a quotation from Proverbs 28:1. Well, half of a quotation.

“The wicked flee when no man pursueth”

That’s a western.

The rest of the quotation, which they chose not to include… “but the righteous are bold as a lion.”

That’s a Coen Bros movie.

Because True Grit is a movie about bold lions who are sometimes righteous, sometimes not. They pay for their self-righteousness in tangible ways that, perhaps, are not so comfortable for audiences. They leave aside their righteousness when it suits. They step beyond animal boldness, reactive and immediate, and sometimes decide to play God.

The first image in True Grit is a blur… a face, made of light, as a voiceover tells us a story about the past. Slowly, the shot comes into focus. It is a house. Mattie Ross’ house. The snow falls over the dead body of her father. Everything has a cost.

We meet Mattie for the first time in Fort Smith, far from home, seeking to settle arraignments for her murdered father. She is accompanied by a black man, a servant of some stripe, to whom she is polite, but feels, at 14, completely comfortable dismissing when she is no longer in need of him.

It’s a remarkable portrait by Hallie Steinfeld. At first, her speech is a bit off-putting. The Coens wrote the film in a kind of period dialect. I have no idea whether they were going for some kind of authenticity or not. But start with extremely limited use of abbreviation and go from there. Steinfeld is a young actor working through this stylized language. Phrases that will eventually pepper conversation include, “You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements,” “There is no clock on my business,” and “This ain’t no coon hunt.”

But Steinfeld is also playing a character who is using every tool she can to convince others that she has control of her circumstances. She’s also trying to convince herself. The journey will turn her into what she is trying to embody, for better or for worse.

The scenes between Mattie Ross and Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) are some early comic relief and a show that Mattie is already good enough at Jedi mind tricks to drive weak-minded men to distraction. The scene, while very similar to the one on the earlier film version of Grit, is dynamic in a way that the first film – in which the Stonehill role was played by the great Strother Martin – can’t touch.

If you take a look at the 1969 film, this will be a recurring reality for you. It’s remarkable how much of the dialogue seems to be exactly the same in both films, almost as though The Coens made an exercise of it. But you rarely can see a glimmer of similarity between the two movies. It is, to over simplify film history, like color and black + white. Henry Hathaway’s True Grit is basically classic filmmaking, a testament to film up until that point. The style was so often imitated in television westerns, it has lost a layer of cinematic umph. It can be a bit creaky. It relies a lot on John Wayne being John Wayne. Glen Campbell is not bad… but not very good. Even Dennis Hopper is a bit lost. (His battles with Hathaway are legend.) Only Robert Duvall raises the bar. But Ned Pepper is also one of the best-written characters.

This is Mattie’s story, 100%. But Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn is the Han Solo to her Leia/Luke. He’s funny, dangerous, and in a terribly odd way, almost sexy. He is not an anarchist. He’s a drunk and a cynic, but he has a code (left unspoken, for the most part) and he pays death no mind. He is maturity.

(ADD. 8:14a, 12/9) Jeff Bridges puts on Cogburn like an old shoe. Bridges is a very unusual performer, as he has had this quiet ease with characters for most of his career, but when he was younger, his ease was almost uncomfortable. He’s not really a straight character actor. He is uniquely himself and that singularity is the singularity of a movie star. But he fully embraces weird, Dusting Hoffman but with movie star looks. He has a grand old time here, but without ever one-eyed winking to the audience, never demanding that we love him, never trying to steal the scene. Remarkable.

Of course, there is no romantic element in a film about a 14-year-old girl and a man in his 60s. But this is not a romantic film. It’s a coming of age film. And though Leia and Han end up together, Luke’s maturity is shaped as much by Han as by Obi-Wan and Yoda. They teach him what kind of man to be while Han teaches Luke how to be a man.

On the other side is Matt Damon’s La Boeuf. Sure to be the most underappreciated – at first – performance in the film, Damon carves out a comic gem. Again, he is another character is righteous and wicked at the same time. He shows himself to be capable of terribly inappropriate behavior towards women and a disregard for morality. But he also is, at times, a real hero. In some ways, he seems to be the young Cogburn, before the challenges that truly seasoned him… and in some ways crushed parts of his personality.

One of the things I find fascinating about The Coens’ True Grit, which is not true of Hathaway’s, is the lack of any women in the film of child-bearing age, except for Mattie. I don’t mean a lack of significant female characters. I mean a void of any women 13-45 other than background players. There are two women of post-menopausal age and two girls who are pre-menstral. Is the entire film, perceived through Mattie’s eyes from the very first frame, a tale about how Mattie sees men in the world, both defining her perception and explaining it? Maybe. Ask me after I have seen it a few more times.

Another element of this is a disconnection from the emotion of death. Yes, it was a different time. But the matter-of-factness of some of it, the recurring theme of Mattie finding herself sleeping in the presence of death, should not be take for granted. It is clearly both text and subtext.

Unlike Hathaway’s Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), The Coens don’t bring Josh Brolin and his character into the film until it is time for confrontation, midway into the third act. In The Coens’ world, Tom Chaney is the MacGuffin. It isn’t the result of the confrontation, but the journey that matters. Of course, being the genius contrarians they are, the Coens make a “classic western” moment out of the confrontation… but it’s more than that.

This dichotomy in the film mirrors the dichotomy of the film. It does all the things it is supposed to do to be a classic kind of entertainment. Late in the film, as a confrontation develops, two characters watch and the Coens’ frame is much like a drive-in theater… a natural upside down proscenium.

But the film also, without often declaring its intentions, is subverting the genre. Retribution is not a happy thing. Cogburn knows this. La Boeuf is still learning. Mattie is a precocious child who has lost her guiding force in her father.

And did I mention, it’s hella entertaining too?

Barry Pepper kills, literally and figuratively, as “Lucky” Ned Pepper. I mentioned Dakin Matthews already. Side characters like “Bear Grit” (played by Ed Corbin), the town Sherrif played by Leon Russom, the Undertaker (Jarlath Conroy), and the dynamic duo of Emmett Quincy and Moon, played by Paul Rae and Domhnall Gleeson… all gloriously specific and odd and engaging.

And need I tell you, it’s the most beautiful damned western, probably ever. As I said before, the technology is so different; it’s almost apples and oranges. And this isn’t The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was also shot by the amazing Roger Deakins. It’s not style that you would notice. And it’s not Unforgiven (shot by Jack Green), that was beautiful and used the modern technology to its advantage, but was also revisionist, so never too beautiful, except when around dead bodies and torch light. This film is lush, but realistic. Deakins’ ninth Cinematography nomination may finally be the one he wins… too long in coming.

The Coens, dealing in some cases with the imagery of chases and gunfights which they haven’t really done before, are masters of simple elegance. There are a couple of sequences built around a small house in the middle of nowhere. The patience they show, allowing the audience to follow the action, never anxious for more, is wonderful.

I still don’t have “the answers” to True Grit. I know that each time I have seen it, I spent much of the rest of the day in no small sadness. Emotion comes late to True Grit, unless you have already seen it and are experiencing it again. But it refuses to offer the audience the out of experiencing the story through simple perspective of Cogburn. That would be a John Wayne movie. This is a Coen Bros movie. It’s Mattie. We’re Mattie.

More when people have seen the film and we can get into a good spoiler-heavy chat…

Separated At Birth: Paramount Edition?

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

True Grit Gets Trailered

Monday, September 27th, 2010

The new teaser for True Grit, Coen Brothers style …

And the Original ….