A Second Look At "True Grit"

Posted by julian On 11:00 AM
Last night, I began what I thought would be a live-blog of True Grit. I scrapped it without posting as it was basically a series of line quotations; presumably you don't come to the blog to watch me take dictation.

It's a testament to the Coen Bros singular voice and gift with language that they can launch a movie with a particularly evocative scriptural quotation
"The wicked flee when none pursueth."Proverbs 28:1
...and begin topping it straightaway with their own words. Or what one assumes are their own words since this is an adaptation. Confession: I have not read the Charles Portis novel or seen the John Wayne film. I've been allergic to John Wayne for as long as I can remember and the only successful antihistamine I've yet encountered is Montgomery Clift (see Red River. Literally. See it. What a film!)

True Grit is an extremely mannered film. That's not a qualitative judgment, just an observation. As I stated in my 7 word review "even the horses act with meticulous predetermination." Which is to say --  here comes the qualitative judging -- this particular movie could stand to breathe in a little of its cold night air or just to stumble from its saddle, the way Rooster does once he's fallen to drink. True Grit doesn't feel entirely human. No Country For Old Men benefitted enormously from the Coen Bros machine-like control of cinema. It made the whole film feel malevolent and underlined its thematic death march. That level of inhuman control is not as much to your advantage when you're telling a story about a little girl out to avenge her father's death.

The plot setup, in case you haven't yet seen it, is that Cheney (Josh Brolin) has killed Mattie Ross's (Hailee Steinfeld) father and fled. Since the law doesn't seem to care Mattie hires a Marshall Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her daddy's killer. A Texas ranger (Matt Damon) accompanies them. Mattie admires men with grit and she's got the stuff herself, but none of the characters (including Mattie) have much in the way of emotional depth. Some, like the villains, are straight up types / cartoons.

 The performances are often amusing but these roles are but tiny sandboxes in which the actors can play. Matt Damon is quite funny in that casual fraternal way of his. Josh Brolin and Hailee Steinfeld don't fare as well, especially on second viewing, adding a stiff "I'm acting now" vibe to the film's already overt mannerisms. These can't be the easiest lines to say -- think for a moment on how hard it is to speak naturally without contractions -- but sometimes, particularly with Steinfeld, the dialogue is spoken as if it were lines rather than verbalized thoughts. Even in two-character scenes, she's monologuing rather than conversing. I continue to be bewildered by the intense praise and awardage Steinfeld is receiving for what is, at best, a solid performance of an endearing lead role, and what is, at worst, an adequate reading of a role that could have elevated the film if there were more complex subtext. There's precious little nuance or backstory teased out which keeps the role in its one dimensional origin space. Arguably Steinfeld also hits those non-verbal notes to convey Mattie thinking or scheming a bit too hard. Is she telling us that Mattie is less clever than she thinks she is or is this merely overplaying?

Best in show, and by an enormous margin with a star turn that deepens on second viewing, is Jeff Bridges as the sozzled Rooster Cogburn. The actor knows that this already iconic role is a rich opportunity for showmanship and understands its imitations otherwise, so he zeroes in on the voice and the physicality, both of which can be readily aped at home to further endear people to the character and actor. (Pop culture statisticians tell us that "I can't do nuthin' for you, son" has already been quoted with amateur approximations of Rooster's voice at least 36,230 times since December 22nd from people of both sexes and of all ages in over 4 different countries. I'm rooting for "performin' his necessaries" to also hit it big.)

Bridges' best decision is that tilted stare, sometimes with his head just slightly yanked backwards; is Rooster trying to refocus his eyes? 'I mean his eye.' He continually holds that stare a shade too long. There's just so much humor in the way Rooster sizes up each character. Even better is that Rooster has the same reaction to surprising lines that are lobbed his way. He treats them like verbal pistol-cocking and he'd best locate a target.

The Coen Bros are beloved of cinephiles and it's not hard to understand why. Filmmakers like the brothers force you to think about the construction of films, because you suddenly notice that every shot, every cut, every moment represents a choice. The dark side of this is that the mannered films perpetually risk devouring themselves like an oroborus or, be they less aggressive or more pretentious, merely sticking their head up their own arse. Excessive stylization is also anathema to viewers who don't like to be confronted by the man (or men) behind the curtain while they're watching films. But on second viewing, the belabored filmmaking proves more boon than bane though and makes the movie quite a lot funnier.

And as everyone has noted, the technical elements are lovely. Roger Deakins' cinematography is beautifully expressive as well as just being plainly beautiful and the editing is top notch. (It's less discussed than their writing skills but aren't the Coens just as gifted in the editing bay?) Nick once called the dissolve a more "soulful" option than a cut and the Coen Bros lean on it a lot here. It works well for the film.  What True Grit lacks in heart and warmth it nearly makes up for in cool soul.

Best line in the movie? It comes during a fade to black near the beginning of the picture as Mattie crashes at the local undertakers before beginning her trip with Rooster.
"If you would like to sleep in a coffin, it would be all right."
It's a comic line in direct context but it's so much more, too. Could there be a slyer preceding line for such a willful march towards vengeance? And could there be a more perfect line to illustrate the often morbid comic sensibility of the Coen brothers?

Speaking of death...

True Grit really sticks its landing which is so important and so hard for movies to do. [VAGUE SPOILER] The climactic nighttime run, which needs to be the most operatically emotional moment in the movie, is just that. Bridges lends the scene natural gravitas and the brave surreal length of that race against the clock is superbly handled. The 25 years later coda, which we also need, is more surprising but ends the movie on just the right note of starch. Mattie (now played by Elizabeth Marvel, the acclaimed stage actress who we're betting is the new Coen regular) has never been a particularly emotional or fun-loving girl and though "time gets away from us" we know it hasn't actually changed her all that much.

B (up from B-)

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