Friday, January 7, 2011

True Grit


Faithful readers of Lamplight Drivel will note that I posted a trailer for the latest Joel and Ethan Coen offering, TRUE GRIT, a few months back. Paramount saw to it that this preview/teaser was cut to showcase the flashy sort of insert shots and editing for which the Coen Brothers can be indentified: the lovingly angled capture of a cocked revolver, the moodily lit long shot, and so on. The trailer also prominently announced that this, like the original 1969 John Wayne pic of the same name, was about revenge. "RETRIBUTION" it stated ominously. It looked like a good fit: the Coens' wry and rugged sensibilities with Charles Portis' earthy 1968 novel. Turns out it was, yessir. But is the audience in for merely a rousing tale of comeuppance, a giving the sons a bitches that best of dishes served cold?

I was asked if I had seen the old Wayne film, and I know I probably did see it on TV as a kid, but I have no strong memory of it or its sequel ROOSTER COGBURN. It's been stated that this 2010 remake is much more faithful to the novel. Either way, the Coens have achieved something significant: an engrossing, oft-told story, but flavored with their unique sensibilities. A happy pairing of traditional storytelling and narrative quirk. Also, a bit of spiritual weight you may not discern until you've had time to digest it all.

That may not please everyone. The Coens have fans who prefer their more ambiguous flights of fancy, things like BARTON FINK. Their resume is a real mixed bag, but the commonality is a singular view of whatever happens to work its way in front of their cameras. A detached, entirely unsentimental and surreal eye is cast with each of their films. And yes, a certain morality, even justice. It was no accident that a tornado was headed towards Larry Gopnik, an Everyman who compromised his ethics, at the conclusion of A SERIOUS MAN.

Point of view and stylistics are essentially what make film viewing a worthwhile pursuit for me (it will never replace a good book, ever). I don't really give a whit as to what a film is about. In fact, less and less so as time goes on. I also care less and less who the actors may be, though I appreciate the fine work of Jeff Bridges (Rooster), Matt Damon (La Boeuf) and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross) in this film. A good director realizes the story through, if he or she is an artist and not just a for-hire hack, a portal that perhaps only they could have designed. See how differently Otto Preminger would've framed a detective film, one with the same script, than say John Huston or Howard Hawks. There's little mistaking the Coens' portal, whether we're watching luckless used car salesmen or dim witted gym rats or cold blooded assassins.

The story: young Mattie Ross is on a mission to hire someone, preferably merciless, to avenge the death of her daddy. Like the tagline says...retribution. She meets grizzled U.S. Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn after his entertaining performance on a courtroom witness stand. He gets a pretty good grilling from counsel for his less than gentle tactics in apprehending criminals. His testimony perhaps cements Mattie's choice. After she chats with and helps him roll a cigarette, she's convinced he has the "true grit" needed to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who stole her father's horses and gold pieces after killing him.

Rooster ain't so sure. Aw hell, he knows full well he can nail the bastard and all, but he's not certain if the kid has the hundred bucks she says to pay him. Plus, he's happy just sleeping and drinking the day away in the back of a market. Once he changes his mind, he sets out earlier than discussed, requiring Mattie to show her tenacity by purchasing a horse (her deal-making scene may well make your head spin) and following. We'll also meet a guy named La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who also wants Chaney's hide for a separate murder in his home state. Once Mattie catches up to the men, the trio will press on, separate, break promises, and eventually meet not only Chaney but also "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), leader of a group of outlaws into which Chaney has fallen.

On this journey, we'll enjoy a strong narrative drive fueled by our interest in seeing these characters interact as well as for the thrills provided by some tasty shootouts. Standard stuff. Like you might see in other Westerns. Here, cinematographer Roger Deakins again paints a beautiful canvas for the Coens. Many shots are so stark I would happily hang them as stills in my office. Carter Burwell, another Coens veteran, provides a spare and appropriate score. But what makes TRUE GRIT more than just a fun 2 hours is the wit and wicked point of view of our filmmakers. Their trademarked bursts of violence, for example, are both horrifying and hilarious. In particular, a sequence where Rooster and Mattie visit 2 outlaws in a remote shack just blindsides you with its sudden brutality (and makes you wonder how in the heck this movie got a PG-13 rating).

That character interaction I talked about is also pure Coens. Mattie speaks rapidly and with an impressive vocabulary. She's not an assembly line cutie. She holds her own with any adult. Perhaps some shades of Jennifer Jason Leigh in HUDSUCKER PROXY? Rooster, as interpreted by Bridges, is a crusty old coot who talks quite a bit though I was unsure of about 30% of his dialogue; I WILL put on the close-captioning for future viewings. His unintelligibility with his speech is not necessarily a quirky choice unique to this movie; just try to understand even 1/3 of what Heath Ledger growls in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, another rather unconventional Western. Damon is fine as the defensive La Boeuf, his insecurities and pious pride make him an easy target for Rooster's constant digs. Another moment that distinguishes this pic from most Westerns occurs in the final scenes, as a grown up Mattie (who narrates this movie) dresses down a man who refuses to stand up to talk to a lady. That verbal violence is as surprising as some of the more physical kind we've seen throughout TRUE GRIT. It's an entirely unexpected moment.

As far as the close of this film goes, we go back to that refusal for Joel and Ethan to succumb to easy sentiment. This film is a spinster's recollection, 25 years later, of how a boozy cuss helped her arrive at the moment she blasts her father's killer to kingdom come. We see the adult Maddie, missing an arm, her face a frozen scowl, as she pays her respects to Rooster's grave. She misses seeing him and his Wild West Show by merely 3 days. She narrates free of any wistfulness, the kind you hear in the voices of other narrators in other films (e.g., Morgan Freeman in SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION).

Thus, the abruptness of the finale of this film makes it clear that the Coens are not interested in making you misty. That will annoy some viewers, who may feel that they've just been subjected to someone's dark joke, a cinematic tease. They may well have been. Think about the ending of BURN BEFORE READING, for example. One person's idea of "dramatic payoff" may be very different than that of the next popcorn muncher. A climax truncated of emotion is an effective device in itself, IMO. One of my favorites is how Altman ends M.A.S.H. Big, significant send-offs aren't always the way to conclude.

But there's more going on with TRUE GRIT, especially as you think it over. It is not a straight revenge piece. The events of Mattie's justice are not without cost. Her fatal gun blast to Chaney causes enough recoil to send her flying backwards into a pit of snakes, one which bites her and causes her to lose that arm. It may be her badge of courage, that phantom limb. Maybe it's pure Hammurabi's Code. Whatever your interpretation, this story as told wants more than to just give vicarious thrills and cinematic appreciation. As with the Coens' NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, an astounding film, viewers are prodded to consider more than just the central business. The catalyst of a protagonist's action has consequence for all.

A writer and the director(s) are god, or at least omniscient, in their work. They engineer the details. Justice according to them. This film opens with Scripture (from Proverbs) and Mattie is portrayed as a devout Presbyterian in all respects. The Coens are working with someone else's story. We always bring our belief systems into our interpretations. In the end, mine would say that TRUE GRIT is a good old-fashioned entertainment with a good dose of irony, and even morality, whatever the Coens may have intended.
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