Saturday, December 25, 2010

Revengeance with the Coens! TRUE GRIT

"You can't stop what's coming." - No Country for Old Men

Would the Coen brothers, Joel/Ethan (aka the "Two-Headed Director"), be the first people on my mind to remake True Grit, the John Wayne vehicle from 1969?  Perhaps, and perhaps not.  Until I heard the announcement of their being assigned to direct it I didn't think of it either way.  But upon further inspection- that is to say, the film itself in complete form- I can see why they would tackle this seemingly straightforward story of a headstrong and highly intelligent fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hallie Steinfeld)) getting a drunken Marshall Cogburn (Jeff "The Dude" Bridges) and a straight-laced Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) together to hunt down her father's killer (Josh Brolin).

The Dude Abides with a pocket full of shells.  
If one is to take Charles Portis' novel (unread by me but compared to the likes of Mark Twain for its panoramic view of America with wit and grace), and to update it, it might as well be the two guys in Hollywood who can make something highly stylized but grounded in a realistic template at the same time.  True Grit also has a distinction for me as one of those remakes where I haven't bothered, somewhat by choice and somewhat by laziness or lack of time, to see the original 1969 film (also directed by Henry Hathaway).

By accounts that film was purely a showcase for The Duke - which is fine if you're a big fan of said Duke, of which I am not - and had its own problems.  I have to wonder if the Coens were fans of that either; from other accounts (such as other critics or the likes of fellow Creatively-Stumped Podcaster Matt) its much truer to the nature of its own material.  Rather, it takes a look at a West that is rough, violent, turbulent and unexpected in its brutality and witticisms.  The Coens are actually just right for this material, having previous neo-Western experience on No Country for Old Men.

Yeah, that's right, I'm lightin' that pipe, right outta Texas.
However if one is looking for distinctive trademarks of their Auteurism, it's not really as out there as in something like last year's A Serious Man.  This time they're smugglers in the genre, bringing their stylized sense of dialog into the framework of Portis' text.  As someone who hasn't read the book nor seen the original film, I have to try my best (by choice and just at the present moment of analyzation) to take it on its own terms.  It's a full-blooded genre film, and yet there are moments and flickers of their distinct personality, or odd touches, coming through.  One wonders if, for example, when Marshall Cogburn and Mattie Ross are in the woods and realize they're being followed and wait for the tracker, and it happens to be a hermit with a big-bad beard and a bear covering his head to body, that if this isn't the Coens pulling one of their eccentric little moments.

But maybe it's also just the tenor of the dialog, the way characters have a rhythm to their step.  The Coens are some of the best in the filmmaking world at making dialog flow like the flow of music, put to the beats of emotion of a scene more than the usual points of plot and story, though it's there as well due to their adoration for genre.  So when Mattie Ross early on goes to get the money due after her father's passing from a shifty-weasel of a clerk-man and is able to talk him into giving her all of money due (whether it's what's totally fair is besides the point, it's what *she* thinks is the only way to go), the dialog is snappy but not so much so that we are distracted.  I wouldn't be surprised even if the dialog is right out of Portis' novel, staying faithful as they did to McCarthy in No Country.  And yet there's that flavor, slipped in like a thief in the night - or like a partner in bed.

The visual approach of True Grit is masterful seemingly with a sense of ease.  It's like the Coens have been waiting their whole career for a chance at a Western like this, practicing in little spurts and starts in other films, and finally giving chance for Roger Deakins to do his wonderful work (watch that courtroom scene where Cogburn is on the stand giving his portion of the story of a shoot-out and look how it's lit - it all looks so natural, yet it's painstakingly prepared to look just so, a light touch that is hard to really make).

Compositions are full of the scope and vistas of a Western setting in the plains and fields, woods and snow, innards of a cottage made of logs or in a cave full of snakes, or of course in the good ol' Western town like the one Mattie Ross goes to find herself some vengeance-helpers.  It's so startling that I wasn't even aware how detailed the cinematography and direction was; a second viewing may give, as has been the case with almost all of the other Coen films, further illumination to their vision, such as when Cogburn heroically rushes along with Mattie day-through-night to get her home.  To put it another way, snow has rarely looked this startling and beautiful - those are the only words I can note for now.

And what about the characters, and the actors, the ones who always give the Coen movies that memorable appeal?  Hallie Steinfeld imbues Mattie Ross as one helluva tough female protagonist - and yes, she is the lead, NOT a supporting actor despite what the Awards people will put it (if she is a supporting player, than so was Frances McDormand's character in Fargo) - a character who, nevermind even sex, is just damn smart and sharp in the face of ignorance or swindlers or those who are headstrong themselves like LaBouef.  At first Mattie Ross may look persistent, on the verge of being pushy, but it's just straight-on determinism to do what has to be done and what's right, and the natural ability to talk to people in such a way as to let them know she means business.  She may be a fourteen year-old girl, but verbally she can wipe the floor with any varmint in the county.

And Steinfeld is up to the challenge.  You almost forget, here and there, that she is as young as she is.  It's such a tough character to pull off (indeed, from what I've read and heard, the actress in the 1969 film was far from up to snuff), and one needs both confidence and maturity, and at the same time, if not all the time, a little bit of innocence tucked away underneath.  It's possible that an underlying emotion is over-compensation; she's lost her father, vengeance must be paid out in due proper.  But Steinfeld makes Mattie complex in her emotional reach.  As the somewhat-secret star of the film, at least if one were to look at the poster, she commands attention and never over-plays anything even up against potential hammy acting or character-player wildness like in Barry Pepper's criminal Lucky Ned.

Staring contest.... you lose, at life.  
And everyone else?  One can't count out Bridges in any performance, and it's a joy to see him do something different than what another actor might have done.  I could see someone else just trying to imitate John Wayne's version of Cogburn, but this would be wrong.  Instead it has to be a closer approximation to the Cogburn from the book (in that sense it's akin to Chris Pine's Kirk from last year's Star Trek, less Shatner than just Kirk).  At first it does look like Bridges could fall over into caricature, and if so, then why carp anyway?  He's a gruffy old bastard who is fun to watch, and commands his own level of respect just by the whip of a gun.  Simultaneously there's a bit of an air of self-deprecation, either on Bridges end or via the Coens' direction.  Rooster Cogburn is a bad-ass, but sometimes laughable in his bumbling way.  He's a very human hero.

Damon, too, is fun to watch, in a different way as he goes under mustache and Texas-accent and cowboy-spurs, only giving in unintentionally to some morbid humor when he gets in a jam with his own bit tongue.  And  as for Josh Brolin, all I can say is he's forgiven for Jonah Hex earlier this year.  His performance is smaller than others in the film, mostly confined to the third act, but he is removed from the Brolin we've seen him play in recent memory.  And what a joy to see a villain who is not some epic monster, but a pathetic kind of creature, more under the whim of the other more bad-ass gunslinger Lucky Ned (also, Pepper, where did he come from with this?)  He creates a character that feels raw and mean and as natural in his own skin as Cogburn is in his.

"I did not regret W!"
The Coens never shy away from the brutality that could come about in the West.  Life and death are more tentative things when it comes to outlaws and Marshalls and Rangers and other such people.  Early on we see three people being hung in the town square, as two of the men get a chance to say their final words and the third, an Indian, is silenced by the black bag before he can come to peace.  Another hanged-man appears again in the woods, and it's a mysterious, crude sight.  It's a West that on the surface should be conventional, but the layers of fine-protection that were in films fifty years and so on past are stripped away.  And at the end, death still comes about anyway, but at least, for a little while, people can do something about it, either to keep life going on or to end it with a swift and mighty hand.  Usually on a trigger, repeatedly.

It's a violent, surprising film that gets better as it goes along, soon revealing itself as one of the finest Hollywood productions of the year.

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