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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

True Grit


For their fifteenth feature film, writers/directors/brothers Joel and Ethan Coen decided to go nostalgic. The Hollywood Western - one of the most beloved cinema genres since, well, the beginning of movies (Great Train Robbery, anyone?) to around, I don't know, Watergate - is about as dead as disco in the new millennium. It seems in the age of CGI there's no room for cattle drives, frontier manhunts, and saloon shootouts in the already crowded multiplex. But the brothers Coen - with their splendid "We'll do whatever the hell we want" attitude - chose to get back in the saddle and on the range for True Grit. But don't expect too straight of a western, that just wouldn't be their style.

As is common knowledge, True Grit is based on a highly revered novel by Charles Portis. It was made into a highly revered 1969 film of the same name starring John Wayne. The film isn't so much treasured for its great craft or storytelling, but essentially because The Duke finally got his long overdue Best Actor Oscar. He played Rooster Cogburn -- a one-eyed, whiskey guzzling, over-the-hill U.S. marshall who goes on a manhunt deep into Comanche territory with a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross. With Mr. Wayne sadly unavailable, the Coens cast none other than His Dudeness (or El Duderino), Jeff Bridges as Cogburn. Bridges fits the bill. He downs whiskey like gatorade at a track meet, rolls and smokes his own ciggs, and grumbles stories of his youth non-stop in an incomprehensible drunken growl, even if no one is listening. He can still shoot, well, sort of, and knows indian territory like the back of his hand.

Despite his age and drunkenness, the young Ross hires him to go after an outlaw named Tom Cheney, who murdered her father in cold blood. Why Cogburn? Mainly because he is the most ruthless of all her viable options. Cogburn does admit in a low rasp, "I've grown old." But in a terrific early scene Cogburn stands trial in an oak furnished and smoke filled courtroom. Under heavy berating he admits to killing over twenty men in the name of the law. He claims he had just cause, but the implication is that some didn't necessarily need killing. He's an old timer trained in wild-west-justice -- a man of real (achem) grit.

However, the film's most fascinating character is indeed Cogburn's employer, Mattie Ross. Played with remarkable confidence and gall by Hailee Steinfeld, Mattie's determined as hell and fixed not so much on vengeance, but justice. She drops big law words on a whim, like, "malem in se" and "malem prohibitum" and then says, "That's latin" with smug assurance. She's cunning and capable with the best lawyer in Arkansas (so she claims) and uses the threat of a suit as a negotiating device. With her father dead and her family in grief-stricken pieces, Mattie's that sad case: a young girl forced to grow up too quickly. She puts on a brave facade, but as the adventure gets bloodier and the body count rises, Mattie's idealist/can-do attitude reverts to the child she really is.

The film's most beautiful and dramatic moments come when the camaraderie between Cogburn and adolescent Ross blossoms into a paternal kinship of protector and protected - most notably in a goose bump inducing climactic ride against the gorgeous setting sun on the frontier horizon. Cinematographer Roger Deakins knows how to use a widescreen and paints it with breathtaking landscape scope and grandeur. The shadowy figures of Cogburn and horse move like phantoms in the moonlit dark and the falling snow. It's probably the best photographed film of the year and the Coens take it further by utilizing ravishing dissolves to transition between shots of their sublime horseback marathon.

But the brothers are notorious tonal con-artists. They can rarely keep a straight face. Even in their super-serious masterpiece, No Country For Old Men, a serial killer, job done, nonchalantly puts his feet up to keep his boots clean from blood pooling nearby. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge). True Grit is no exception. Bridges shoots for laughs straight from the hip with sardonic one-liners and clownish drunken stupors. Matt Damon enters as a butt-of-the-joke, Texas Ranger who comes along on his own accord. Even Josh Brolin as the infamous Tom Cheney arrives as a submissive and pathetic dimwit.

So why remake True Grit? To jumpstart a western resurge? I think not. This is not a western done for westerns' sake. This is a story the Coen Brothers really wanted to tell. And they tell it with their usual technical virtuosity and rich intellectual depth. Despite the quality of True Grit, I feel the western was done to death long before Joel and Ethan came around. There is no renaissance on the horizon. But to watch the Bros wax nostalgic and tackle a classic genre with their trademark edginess was certainly the experience I've been roaming the valley for. I think The Duke (and The Dude) would abide as well.

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