Saturday, December 25, 2010

True Grit (2010)

Mine eyes have seen the glory. The Coen brothers, smartass, shaggy-dog moralists, have stripped away even the bluff of their cynicism for their most straightforward, un-ironic film. Somehow, they ended up making one of their most meditative. Their update of True Grit continues their heightened commitment to moral reckoning of late, but the evocative (and deeply misunderstood) rumination of No Country for Old Men has given way to a message that is destined to be even more overlooked, precisely because it is hidden in plain sight, uncovered by the removal of irony.

Just as the filmmaking duo put Cormac McCarthy's anti-thriller on the screen with remarkable fealty, they adapt Charles Portis' novel faithfully, more faithfully than the 1969 film starring John Wayne. Portis' book is a light read, enjoyable but sprinkled with contradictions it never addresses. In sticking to the letter of the novel, the Coens transpose those issues and undermine them without turning the material against itself.

A revenge story, True Grit opens with an aural framing device as a middle-aged Mattie Ross remembers her father's death, the image filtering into clarity from a haze like an old but vivid memory being tapped. As the image sharpens, we see a man, Mattie's father, lying in a heap at the foot of his home as his murderer, a hired hand named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), rides away. The young Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) heads to town to retrieve her father's body and setlle his affairs, and from the onset she comes across as shrewd beyond her 14 years. A trader uses her dad's demise as an excuse to make a quick buck, but she manages to sell back the final items her father bought from the man as well as some extra material of dubious ownership in a way that weakens the man as much as his malaria.

But her hardness carries a darker edge. Tracking the sheriff to inquire about Chaney's location, she witnesses a hanging and is unmoved by the sight of three men dropping until their necks snap. When the sheriff tells her that Chaney is out of his jurisdiction and that the U.S. Marshals will have to deal with him now, Mattie asks which Marshal she could hire. Of the ones mentioned, she settles on Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whom the sheriff pointedly does not describe as the best man for the job but the meanest. Her drive impresses the washed-up drunk, as well as a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf a.k.a. "La Beef" (Matt Damon), who pursues Chaney for the murder of a state senator back in his home state. Mattie insists that Chaney be hanged for killing her father and not some mere senator, a sly political statement but also one that reveals the myopic fury of her thirst for revenge.

Jeff Bridges, who received his "sorry we didn't get this to you sooner" Oscar earlier in the year for his performance in Crazy Heart, is still so alive and visceral that the joy of seeing him at last rewarded -- even with something as meaningless as an Academy Award -- is tempered by the fact that it symbolizes an atonement rather than a recognition that he still does magnificent work. I joked with friends that, as much as I've come to admire John Wayne, Bridges represented a significant upgrade. Yet it is in his desire to move away from Wayne's performance that Bridges does one of his few "acting" jobs, where you can actually catch him at the tricks he normally pulls off without ever trying. Bridges' take on Cogburn is nearly unintelligible, not only from his intoxicated mumble but in the not-all-there look in his one good eye. Wayne may not have been half the actor Bridges is, but he oozed charisma, and Bridges tries his damnedest to make the audience root for him while still undermining his own charm at every turn. It's a taxing job, but one he pulls off, as ever, brilliantly.

As much as Bridges' Cogburn is a murderous scoundrel, Mattie's support for him mirror's the audience's own, and she becomes the voice of the revenge-movie crowd. Cogburn instantly proves himself a lout, his slurred growl generating a host of laughs in the courtroom but also revealing a man who can casually kill a man under protection of the law. Mattie delights in his sadism, looking impressed when, stalking some bandits who might lead them to Chaney, Cogburn plans to plug one in the back with a rifle slug as a grim warning shot to the other gang members. Rooster is Western lawlessness, charismatic enough that he wins over the crowd, and Mattie, but so disgusting that whatever romanticism might have resided in the old, fat man's belly got vomited up during one of his many drinking spells. And still Mattie adores him, her loyalty only faltering when his alcoholism interferes with his violence. She literally cheers the spectacle of LaBoeuf and Cogburn killing others but, as with all action audiences inured to atrocity against humans, at last manages to spare emotion for the brief abuse of an animal.

The Coens never force this point, never turn True Grit into the explicit anti-Western styling of Dead Man. Playing it straight, they allow us to identify with Mattie -- a simple matter given the magnetic pull Steinfeld exerts on the audience -- and never pull the rug out from under us. Like an old Roadrunner cartoon, they simply wait for us to look down and realize we've run with Mattie right off a cliff, and that by looking down we suddenly let gravity kick back in. That they filter the voice of a primarily male audience through a young girl is but another facet of the subtlety with which they give the viewers enough rope to hang themselves.

That commitment to straight Western storytelling peppered with implication extends to the film's racial commentary: at the hanging Mattie attends at the start of the film, three man stand on the gallows. The middle sobs and begs for forgiveness for minutes, another does not repent but gets his say, but the Native American sentenced to die has a bag thrown over his head immediately, silencing him before he can orate. Cogburn never uses any slurs, but when he viciously kicks two Choctaw children off a trading post porch, Bridges puts the racism of John Wayne's West on display as clearly as it can be seen back in town where every black character is a servant to whom even Mattie lightly condescends. (I found it incredibly interesting that the audience burst into its loudest laughter at this child abuse.)

Roger Deakins' cinematography stresses earthen tones, highlighting the sickly yellow of fire and the brown of wooden structures. Deakins' immaculate deep focus certainly does not recall Robert Altman's hazy McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but the color palette sure does. The Coens tell a more straightforward Western than Altman did, but both movies undercut the sense of individuality of the West and the moral code of law by starkly showing the true results of revenge and duels, where people end up dead and not a whole lot else can be said on the matter. Furthermore, both do not actually occur in the classic West -- McCabe is up in the Pacific Northwest, True Grit back in the novel's setting of Arkansas -- allowing for chilling snow flurries that only emphasize the cold remove of all the surrounding space.

I've learned not to underestimate the Coen brothers, who have made their fourth film in a row that breaks ranks from the previous entries even as they all share a loose thematic core. The comedy in the screenplay leans more toward the outright aburdist farce of Burn After Reading than the glacial chuckles of spiritual and existential doubt in A Serious Man. They hinder Damon with a lisp after an accident leaves La Boeuf's tongue half-severed, sabotaging every dramatic moment the actor gets with the mild comedy of his thick pronunciation. The usual odd touches litter the cast, from a kindly but screwy dentist-cum-mountain man Cogburn and Mattie encounter to a gibbering loon who rides with Tom's posse. But even these broad types play into the directors' statements on the aborrent bloodlust of the Old West: that gentle and amicable dentist casually mentions how much he'd like it if Cogburn could kill a man for him. This is a society that would rather see any innocent man hanged than a guilty one go free, if not to ensure that all culpable shall face punishment then to simply ensure some entertainment to break up the monotony. I laughed as much during True Grit as I have the Coens' finest comedies, but as with A Serious Man, those chuckles occasionally caught in the throat.

With respect to spoilers, all I will say about the ending of True Grit is that it elevates the Coens' penchant for anticlimactic endings into a direct commentary on the subject matter at hand. While the endings to other films may be frustratingly oblique and the Coens' joke on us, their carefully structuring here only reinforces the notion that revenge does not bring true satisfaction. The Mattie Ross who speaks to the audience in the framing device is a spinster, and the Coens use her aged voice to communicate from that start that, however this story plays out, it will not bring true closure; if it did, she would not feel the need to keep sharing it at age 40. The novel (and especially the 1969 film) support the quest for vengeance, but the Coens deconstruct that bloodlust by giving it to the audience, just as Quentin Tarantino savaged lingering fantasies of Jewish revenge by reveling in it for Inglourious Basterds. True Grit may be the most instantly enjoyable film the Coen brothers have made since, well, the last movie they made with Jeff Bridges, but hidden in that digestible entertainment is a devastating critique of most of the people lining up to see it.

17 comments:

  1. I think (hope) the big laughs are like Mad Men laughs. The "oh shit, this is how it was, not the usual nostalgic bullshit of 'The Good Ol' Days'" laugh. But maybe I'm optimistic.

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  2. I don't think they were "These were the good ol' days" laughs but that no one even stopped to consider the racial undertone and just laughed at the sight of children being violently kicked around (and that's another thing -- his kicks are brutal, and people are still laughing about child abuse).

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  3. I am a horse trainer and there was definitely animal abuse in this movie ....Horses falling with old period saddles on , horses running till nares are flaring , grown men double riding and bouncing on the tender kidney area , horses mouths being pulled and jerked ... I walked out of the movie .....

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    1. Well he could have spanked the kids with a belt and not kick him in the back into the mud. You are not human is animal abuse bothers you more than child abuse

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  4. I think it was more those kids were abusing a donkey so who cares if they receive a kick?

    Very in-depth look at this film. Great review!

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  5. The first time, I would agree. A good slap was deserved. But the look in Bridges' eye went beyond a "stop that;" some pure hatred passed across that face, more so when the horse had long gone and he kicked them again.

    But I feel we're getting hung up on a stray observation and not one of the bigger things I noticed. That just struck me as odd; Mattie's embodiment of blockbuster love of violence was far more important and meaningful to the Coens' commentary, and the hanging scene put forward more erudite thoughts on racism.

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  8. See, though, I don't care what other reviewers say in the sense that it doesn't matter to my interpretation (though of course I absolutely care to read fine essays from people like you, Sheila O'Malley, Tony Dayoub, etc., and I had a dynamite conversation about the movie with Sheila). Just because others didn't pick up on it doesn't mean it isn't there -- remember, a handful picked up on the grace and power of A.I. when it first came out -- and the Coens have never really put forward their true intent in interviews, not even with Charlie Rose. I think that, like Tarantino, they respond only to what they're presented with: QT talked up the "Jews killing Nazis hell yeah!" angle with everyone because they thought it was cool, but then Rachel Maddow asked him about the parallels between Jews becoming Nazis to kill Nazis and counterrorists using terrorism to fight terror and he suddenly gave a very serious interview. That's not to say that everyone who interviewed the Coens was all pro-revenge but that the focus of the interviews were specifically on the source material and original film.

    To talk of Cheney, isn't the fact that he's portrayed as a stupid, simpering coward a deflation of his evil? He's vile, yes, but meaningless. Mattie may have been right in thinking him a simpleton, but the weight of his crime made his image grow in her the same way it blossomed in LaBoeuf's head. We expect to see pure evil, and instead we get a man just as he finally gets the hint that even his posse has no use for him. He's a baby, and though I absolutely agree the Coens set him up for the kill in the audience's mind, I think the context of his death is but further proof of the Coens messing with expectations.

    You say that the audience still gets its moment of triumph, but can you honestly say the two seconds we get of Chaney's hit give the audience a release when the very next cut shows Mattie tumbling back into her fate? The catharsis is instantly, horrific ceased and the tone spins on a dime. Chaney is left as a symbol of Western sadism, someone motivated by fear and ignorance, but by killing him, Mattie doesn't get the hero's satisfaction. She wakes up days later with an arm gone and the men she'd formed bonds with having disappeared. She won't return a hero but a freak, a sympathy case to be spoken of with mild admiration but greater condescension from both those who mock and pity her. I've seen it twice and cannot come out of the film with even the visceral sense of victory.

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  9. As for feminists finding her a strong character...so? That means she has fortitude, which she does. That doesn't make her crusade virtuous or her victory any sweeter. It's possible to admire her courage and determination while feeling that her ultimate goal is misguided and that the results do not vindicate her. That is what, I've tried to argue, the Coens think: they never condemn her for wanting vengeance, because it is a natural human impulse, and her original desire to bring him back for trial is not an evil one. She may have a bloodlust to see Chaney hanged, but at least she'd send him through the system. But when she becomes the executioner, everything changes. At that point, her determination outpaces her moral strength, and the price she pays is too great for us to say, "Well, but she did get to kill him."

    I went back and saw this again, well, for one thing because I loved it the first time, but also to be on the lookout for the other, dominant perspective of this film. I came out agreeing that some moments are very much in line with a typical revenge narrative, but also secure in the belief that those very conventions were then overturned later. Placed in context, not even that shot of Chaney tumbling over the cliff felt all that exciting (and even if my liberal brain kicked it later, I would absolutely feel the moment) because it's so quickly undone, and the sight of Mattie in middle age does not convey a woman who never settled for a man unworthy of her (and I would say that nearly all men, especially for that time, would be) but of her inability to move on because she never got the satisfaction that the audience itself was denied. I honestly couldn't see it as an acceptance of her bloodlust, even if the movie did accept her pain. That's why I found it so human.

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  10. As for the kicks, I meant "hate in his eye" more as a turn of phrase. The power and savagery with which he kicks those kids communicates a hate that goes beyond a moment of physical comedy. If it doesn't demonstrate how inured he is to looking down on Indians, it at least says what a disgusting man this Rooster is.

    And that's another side of the film that undercuts the glory of violence: all of Rooster's kills are abhorrent. Everyone in the theater turned and groaned in the cabin, the laughs they shared when he was casually mentioning kills in the courtroom turns to disgust. (Of course, the Coens got laughs back when Rooster shoots LaBoeuf, but isn't that also turned on its head when he makes a pathetic fool of himself shooting cornbread to look cool?)

    The Hathaway movie is all about Rooster's redemption, and when Wayne flares his nostrils and bellows "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" it's the moment that announces his return. Some complained that the Coens' version lacked the energy and payoff in this scene, but that was the point: he's just killing people, people only tangentially involved with the plot, at least in the movie -- forgive me, for I have not read the book in years, was Lucky Ned a bigger presence in the novel?

    When Bridges' Rooster says those immortal words, they're just the insensitive response of a man who knows that he is nothing. He kills that gang, but does it restore his vitality? One of the men he murders is mentally retarded, and there's no sense in killing any of them, because they're no worse than he (Ned has as much respect for Mattie as Cogburn and wants to spare her).

    But he does get his redemption, in this case only through his actions in saving Mattie. It is by preserving a life, not ending one, that he becomes heroic. But he cannot see that redemption, so he slips out and spends his last days as a tourist item cashing in on his vulgar side. He can't have the moment of leaping the fence to show his vitality: his was the first and last noble act of an ignoble man, and that's far more profound than the (admittedly pleasing as hell) spectacle of Wayne riding away.

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  12. I think you've made some strong points too, Adam. You're much more familiar with both the book and the Hathaway original, neither of which I've looked at in years (I enjoy the Hathaway movie but am not particularly Gaga over it). I think that it's possible for the Coens to follow the same structure but attain a different tone. The Hathaway movie puts Mattie in danger right afterward, yes, but it ends on a much more victorious note than the Coens' film. Hathaway's movie hints at the darker side of her bite -- "That girl is sicker than she knows" -- but it turns out alright and we're treated to the masculine return of Cogburn. This ends on such an utterly deflated minor key that the sheer rhythm of the Coes' film makes it radically different without superficially changing much at all. I need to re-read Portis' novel (though considering how backed up I am it might be 2016 by the time I get around to it), but the Hathaway movie is fresh enough in my memory despite gaps that I can tell a clear difference between his more rousing, Rooster-centered shootout and the Coens' revenge-as-anti-revenge narrative. I don't think it's as powerful a look at moral reckoning and the sad waste of violence as NCFOM, but I do stand by placing it with Inglourious Basterds as one of those films that completely feeds the audience's bloodlust even as it poisons and eradicates that feeling until you're left with a nagging sense that there's not really any satisfaction.

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  13. Thank you for putting words to the nagging feeling I had after I saw this movie. I immediately wanted to go back and see it again. It's a deceptively simple film, and reminds me of Ford's westerns in it's ability to layer themes which are diametrically opposed, one on top of the other.

    I completely agree with you that the film is an anti-revenge revenge tale, leaving one feeling vaguely empty at the end, with slight uplift if one looks closer at the last frame. After it was over, I felt that the real meaning of the story lay just beyond my grasp - and it had something to do with Mattie's literal fall into the heart of darkness.

    She is immediately cast backwards into the snake pit as she pulls the trigger. Doesn't that symbolic plunge alone make a statement that a growing desire for violence has...well, maybe not corrupted her, but hurt her? We can never know if she was corrupted by her experiences, since we don't meet Mattie until after her father's shooting. And I don't think Mattie the grown woman feels that her act was wrong. But there was no payoff, she did not get to enjoy the moment, nor thank the man who saved her life. It ends messy. The outcome of her killing Tom Chaney is that she almost loses HER life. She loses a piece of herself when she kills and will be left remembering the moment (and Chaney) forever. An eye for an eye.

    Mattie wants to have power in her life, certainly, but God-like power has a price. An eye for an eye has a deeper, endless meaning here. Does biblical justice mean judgment and wisdom don't matter anymore? Certainly, these questions are meant to be thought about when watching this movie, though they don't hit one over the head. Doesn't Cogburn say at the beginning of the film that the snakes will not bother someone who is pure and innocent? This all leads me to believe that it is more than just a simple crowd-pleasing revenge story.

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  14. While the Coens' film is more astringent and lacks Hathaway's sweetened ending, it does not wander off down black trails in pursuit of violent quirk.

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