Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Same Grit, Different Day

So far, I've only read snippets of the reviews for Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit, along with one brief interview with lead actor Jeff Bridges that read like a publicity piece meant for nationwide syndication. The only solid understanding that I have is that the Coen Brothers set out to make an adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 comic western novel, not a remake of Henry Hathaway's 1969 film version, starring John Wayne. With any given book-to-film transition, it seems that there's either no attention given to the original source material, or there's too much to the point that the idea of a film narrative gets lost. Given that the Coens managed to create such a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, one that stood alone as both an original piece of cinema and a faithful evocation of McCarthy's prose, it's refreshing that they've put their focus on Portis and not just on a previous film version. However, I went into my recent screening of the newest film without having read the book, but with having seen Hathaway's version. Therefore, I could not help but make references between the two films, instead of taking it from the perspective of Portis's prose, so this review could very well go against what Joel and Ethan had in mind.

After her father is murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives to claim the body and to inquire about the law's efforts to bring Chaney to justice. Dissatisfied with the proceedings, she personally hires U.S. Marshal 'Rooster' Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to find Chaney, based on his mean streak and description of having "true grit." Insisting that she go along with Cogburn on the journey, she's furious to find that, on the scheduled morning, he's already left, leaving behind a note that she should go home. Feeling that Cogburn is stealing her money, she finds him and admonishes him, and reasserts her right to go with him. She's even more put off by the presence of La Boeuf, a cocky Texas Ranger who's after a reward, since Chaney also murdered a state senator. The three motives and personalities clash, with the two men unnerved by Mattie's youth and determination, Mattie and Cogburn angered with La Boeuf's arrogance, and Mattie and La Boeuf put off with Cogburn's drinking. After a late-night revelation following a shoot-out with two hidden outlaws, they learn that Chaney has taken up with Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang, leading to further, unexpected showdowns. For those completely unfamiliar with the plot, this is about as detailed as it can get without veering into spoiler territory.

Much like the 1969 version, the film struck me with the realization that strong cases can be made for Rooster or Mattie being considering the main character. While yet another case can be made for their journeys being a joint effort, their singular characteristics make them unique, but also vying for the top subconscious recognition. And, in essence, this goes for the actors as well; it's difficult to decide whether to mention an established veteran like Bridges first, or to open with the remarkable debut of Steinfeld. Even before the film opened, the consensus seemed to be the Steinfeld will receive an Academy Award nomination, and while it will be deserved if it happens, her strong performance goes above a simply "great debut," but also needs to be mentioned as a superior character interpretation. While Kim Darby held her own in the original, I couldn't help but think about her as somewhat whiny and annoying. Steinfeld, whether due to her age or her acting abilities, does a much better job of conveying Mattie's strong will coupled with life innocence. She shows fear in dire situations, but never seems to break down, even in tears. She handles the occasional comedic moment with muted, terrific timing, and her rapid-fire dialogue is delivered as a strong character, not a more sexist designation of a "strong female character" (this sometimes seems to be implied in film, as if women cannot possess a strong will and determination without it being 'quirky'). Cogburn and La Boeuf are not pleased with her dominating personality, but along with the audience, they accept it quickly, even if it's not out of social growth but more for survival value. Steinfeld possesses a lot of the acting traits that have made Ellen Page such a recognized talent, and hopefully with the right roles, she won't disappear like Darby ended up doing.

I did read the opening of Roger Ebert's True Grit review, and fully agree with the assessment that Bridges brings his own skills to the role of Cogburn, and not just a mimic of John Wayne's performance. Wayne's Cogburn was rough around the edges, blunt, but hiding a softer side in his stories about his ex-wife. Bridges does the same, but the softer side comes not from Cogburn's backstory (which is delivered in a sort of rambling afterthought monologue), but from the depictions of his alcoholism. In the first film version, Mattie chides him for his drinking, but in this one, his actions speak much louder. The audience sees him at his lowest points when drunk, whether he is insulting Mattie and La Boeuf or pathetically trying to show off his pistol skills while reeling from a night of drinking. There are no obvious morals presented; Cogburn is a drunk, and we're simply shown the effects of his choices. This is an obvious sentiment, but Bridges is simply one of the best living actors. From one scene to the next, he's tough, playful, and sympathetic, and his body language makes it much more than just a well-written character. Wayne's consistent iciness is replaced with a man whose faults are shown, rather than discussed.

I've long considered Matt Damon to be a truly underrated actor, and while he's much more intense than Glen Campbell was in the role of La Boeuf, he doesn't bring anything new to the character, except for toning down the original "pretty boy" vibe, and making him a little more intense. Portis's novel is said to hint at an attraction between Mattie and La Boeuf, and while it's mildly apparent in this version, Damon doesn't do much except for the occasional stare or glance in her direction. This is not to say that he does a bad job in the film; however, there's really not much to interpret, but there's never a moment where he turns in a bad performance. The issue may be that La Boeuf was poorly written, or written very basically. I thoroughly enjoyed the casting of Barry Pepper as Ned, a role originally played by Robert Duvall. In addition to a strong physical resemblance (at least in the looks of the role), Pepper makes the most of his short screen time as a villain. He sneers, he's direct, but not over-the-top. Ned's mentality is precise, and much like Steinfeld uses precision to create a strong character, Barry Pepper does so to create a thrilling embodiment of Old-West evil. It's a classically-styled job, and very evocative of Lee Van Cleef, arguably the best at portraying physical villainy.

The majority of the film does not carry the hallmarks of a typical Coen Brothers production, but there are the occasional scenes that Coen aficionados will appreciate. In a dark, uncomfortably funny scene, the Coens display the mindsets of nineteenth-century Americans: at the town's hanging, two white inmates are given platforms for their final words, ranging from repentant to defiant; when a Native American inmate begins his final words, the hood is quickly lowered over his head, and he is killed mid-speech. During the journey, Cogburn and Mattie come across a strangely prophetic "medicine man" dressed in bearskins, complete with a bear head fashioned into a winter hat. As the man speaks, he mixes "wisdom" with lunacy, and in the process becomes a noted Coen Brothers character, a mystical being who seems out of place, yet perfectly at home in the Coen universe (other examples include Tommy Lee Jones's partner in No Country For Old Men and the dybbuk in A Serious Man). Toward the film's end, Cogburn is attempting to rush Mattie to medical attention, and the scene is one of the more stunning atmospheres that the brothers have filmed: the characters seem to move in slow motion, whether by horse or on foot. The night sky is almost blinding with stars, filmed in an emotionally dimmed, dream-like state.

The Coen Brothers have created masterful additions to a variety of genres, yet True Grit feels like a simple homage to the classic Western. With the exception of the above examples, the journey of Cogburn, Mattie, and La Boeuf is directed in a very standard fashion, and compared to the Hathaway version, it's almost shocking that so much of the original build-up was cut out, but merely supplied by an older Mattie's voice-over. The suspense in the film works quite well, but the occasional scene seems to pale in comparison to the original. For example, the revelatory confrontation of Quincy and Moon is shot beautifully, but feels rushed. The newer version is filmed at night, whereas the original scene took place in the day, but felt much more suspenseful even in sunlight, as opposed to shadows and firelight. This is a very good film, but given the fact that the Coen Brothers have created characters and scenes that are worthy of the overused phrase "genius," it sometimes felt as if they kept themselves held too far back, and while the story stands on its own for the most part, it feels as if the combination of great acting with more directorial flairs could have made this one of the best films of 2010 instead of just a very good film from any year. Some filmmakers can make their trademarks distracting, but the Coen Brothers are the rare filmmakers who can leave an audience mildly disappointed by doing too little. True Grit may end up with scores of nominations in the upcoming award season, and while it's very well done, with the exception of Bridges and the revelation of Steinfeld, it was created by people who are capable of doing so much more.

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