True Grit (2010, Joel & Ethan Coen)

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A week before my dad died, he told me to watch this movie. It was one of his favorites and he put it on over and over again in the hospital where he lived for the last few months of his life. A thing like this will inevitably color one’s perception of a film, positively or negatively, through no fault or virtue of its own. For instance, could one regard Antichrist neutrally if he or she lost an infant child? At any rate, certain types of films remind me of my dad anyway — and throughout this one, I see and hear him in it, and I completely follow why it corresponded so doggedly to his tastes. He loved action films and westerns but, though an NRA member and libertarian, hated John Wayne for all his commie-baiting, and really loathed the anti-indigenous racism that permeated most of the classic westerns. Our interests diverged strongly by the time I was a teenager — he deeply believed that Hitchcock, toward whom I was a ruthless partisan by junior high school, was too intense and malicious — but I think I gained my basic love of cinema from my dad. I’ll raise a glass to him on this one, but I can’t honestly claim I can give a really balanced and straightforward review. I ended up finding the film enjoyable and slightly overrated — but am I over-correcting? I don’t know.

On top of everything else, it seems to me a film that might well have been an intense comfort to a dying man who’d always been a bit loath to show excessive emotion. True Grit, the Coen brothers’ remake of Henry Hathaway’s Wayne-driven neo-western, covers the ground of human estrangement, the subtle machismo and subtler depression of the aging loner, without underlining it uncomfortably, which is both an achievement and a fault. The pair has made exceptional films, but even the best of them (in order: No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo) contains some sort of a “but,” usually dealing with a kind of smallness in their perception of human nature. Luckily, Grit continues the recent trend of the Coens bucking this problem — but one element in this that’s impossible to ignore is that it’s their least distinctively “Coen brothers” film to date. Like No Country, it’s a rather straightforward adaptation, much of its dialogue verbatim from Charles Portis’ novel. It adorns its rich central conflict — a headstrong teenage girl seeks to avenge her father’s death, an eye for an eye, and enlists the aid of a U.S. marshal and wily sheriff’s deputy to do so — with an unusually heightened distance that seems much more reminiscent of producer Steven Spielberg’s work than their own. They’re no more or less “real” than the Coens’ usual population, but in conception and tone the only passing resemblance any of the three principals bear to a typical Coen figure is in that of Jeff Bridges’ character here to the one he plays in The Big Lebowski.

Much more important — and perhaps revealing of how the film’s place in my life has colored my take on it — is the level of emotion and sentiment here, an air of almost palpable sadness tied in the film’s strange mist of memory and the near-physical manifestation of a yearned-for past. “Time just gets away from us,” Mattie, now in her forties, mumbles in the film’s last line of voiceover. It’s not strong language, and it isn’t read with any special emphasis — but its sense of melancholy is almost crushing. That ability to render small things into a tonal and psychological grandness is something we’ve only seen from the Coens in passing glimpses before. A quick comparison to the dreamlike finale of Raising Arizona, for example, reveals that film to be far less confident and mannered, placing much more emphasis on a less honestly earned swelling up. Of course, True Grit‘s in a reality apart from our own, wherein all occupants of the Texas plains speak with few contractions (like Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie!) and retribution is a cause worth the moving of mountains and uprooting of souls. Scott Rudin called it the “least ironic” Coen brothers film, not without reason.

Young unknown Hailee Steinfeld is faced with the task of carrying the entire picture, and she’s brilliant at embodying the unreasonable adolescent in the context of a now vastly outmoded code of justice: she will not merely find her father’s murderer but will kill him herself. This is the most the Coens have aligned themselves with one specific character in some time (though interviews suggest that Ethan, at least, saw her as just as much a mere pawn to toy with as ever), making it all the more impressive that they largely rein in the stereotypes. Of course, I still don’t really believe that they like or care about people in general, but something at least seemed to attract them to these people, and that’s to their benefit as well as ours. Only after the film fades does it become clear just how large and major a departure it was for them.

As to where it fits in the canon of film westerns, well, who knows, but the references to The Searchers are obvious and welcome, even if nothing can touch the strange wistfulness and beauty of that film. And I think I prefer it to most of the other “neo-westerns” like Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma, perhaps because it is so much more defiantly populist — and far less didactic. The levity helps, even if some of the humor is clunky (the dialogue is often brilliantly acid but because a lot of it was lifted from the source material, the actors sometimes can’t quite wrap their tongues around it), and as much as there remains the typical issue in modern American films of characters relating to one another in a curiously boxed in, rote, Screenwriting 101 fashion, that’s just the world we live in now — and kudos to the Coens for reviving a once-dominant form in both letter and spirit, mostly free of sardonics or piled-on cynicism.

Inevitably though, I must object to the casting. I admit to a personal dislike of Jeff Bridges that’s a hindrance to me believing in or enjoying him in any of his roles; at least Kurt Russell did this sort of thing without mumbling so damned much. I have a violent reaction to Bridges that I can’t help, and I’m not going to pretend it’s fair to criticize the movie for it, but I will honestly tell you that I think Matt Damon was terribly miscast here. It’s nice that he’s attempting to move beyond the Bourne, um, legacy, but this challenge seems beyond his reach; he’s tough to accept as the forceful law enforcement official, LaBoeuf, who conquers the mockery of Bridges’ Rooster to gratuitously spank a fourteen year-old — not long after his character abstractly offers her a kiss. As in Damon’s great but entirely out of place role in The Informant!, it’s as though he believes he’s been cast in a different movie than everyone else, and the entire tone of his performance would be better suited to a more “typical” Coens film, not one with such a tinge of epic, mythological seriousness. Josh Brolin, meanwhile, is chilling during his precious few scenes; it would be awfully nice to trade off the two actors’ presences.

As has been nearly always the case in recent Coen brothers projects, the film is driven by the cinematography of Roger Deakins, who continues to assert himself as the best D.P. working today. The daytime scenes explode with a vivacious but appropriately foreboding color design, and the night scenes are simply a beautiful mass of heavy-blue urgency. Less typical is the need to recognize stock Coens composer Carter Burwell, whose best work to date this likely is; the romantic score wells up and provides the perfect complement to the ache buried behind the flat screen.

True Grit is a quick one, at 111 minutes, but it feels a great deal longer. That’s largely because the action-heavy second act is so long as to feel a sagging hindrance; the Coens can do whatever they put their minds to, typically, but since the departure of Deakins predecessor Barry Sonnenfeld, who handled the wild chase scenes in Raising Arizona, they’ve proven themselves hardly adept at mounting action sequences. Those in True Grit are confusing, hard to follow, and unnecessarily lengthy. Yet all is forgiven — from the moment that Mattie finally shoots her man and is blown back to fall into a hole, True Grit achieves the genuine heaven of a cinematic perfection: first is Bridges’ sad, struggling walk through the snow to a house where Mattie’s life can be saved from the venom of a snakebite. It will be, and we rejoin her as a grown woman as she provides us with a few elegiac updates and twists our hearts all around. This is all directly from the novel, and it’s masterfully mounted — the best half hour of film the Coens have yet to put together, it’s the stuff of an American classic. Like No Country and A Serious Man, the perfect gloriousness of that last shot — and those last lines — is meant to leave us speechless, and does. Everything’s all okay now, the movie allows, but is it really? Will it be ever? And did all this really matter, or are we just passing the time? I can’t imagine my dad wasn’t pretty deeply impacted by these questions, and I hope the film’s aesthetic and thematic communication were a comfort to him.

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