' ' Cinema Romantico: True Grit

Monday, January 10, 2011

True Grit

Leave it to The Coen Brothers to make a conventional western, which is actually a remake of an earlier John Wayne film, though it's less a remake than a straight adaptation of the Charles Portis novel on which they were both based, that is entirely unconventional. Oh, make no mistake, the familiar elements are in place. A ragtag band lookin' for some revenge. Galloping horses silhouetted in the sun. A stately but elegiac score. Shootouts and whiskey and snakebites and campfires and the whole nine yards. But the entire thing, if you look closely, is just a tad askew. It's in the dialogue and it's in the performances, such as in the lead performance by 13 year old Hallee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross.


Damn, she's a tough cookie. No, tough cookie isn't even the right term. It's been a cinematic year full of female badasses. Ree Dolly and Evelyn Salt and, well, Mattie Ross is just as badass as any of 'em, though, to be sure, she's a proper badass. She speaks in terse, complete sentences. "I'm here to settle my father's affairs." That's her father who, as the movie opens, has just been shot and killed by the dastardly Tom Chaney. And so now Mattie will take up a gun and track down the slovenly, drunken, one-eyed, but absurdly smart Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her track down Tom Chaney since she aims to kill him back. She doesn't cry, doesn't spend time in mourning, nope, she saddles up, refuses any guff from the Rooster and in one breathtaking sequence fords a river all on her lonesome which is as thrilling a 60 seconds as you will witness in a movie theater all year.

It's at this moment Cogburn finally begins to respect the resourceful Mattie. The same thing, however, cannot be said about the third member of their party, LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger, who is eternally insistent on reminding everyone he's a Texas Ranger. Now listen to to the speech patterns of this most motley trio. Mattie makes no small talk whatsoever. Everything's deadly serious. She ain't got no time to waste. Rooster Cogburn drawls on endlessly, telling story after story in a backwoods dialect. LaBeouf talks in a way to remind everyone how educated he is or, if he isn't really educated, to make everyone think he's educated. Three completely distinct voices, a rarity these days at the movies and a heavenly treat.

And now a brief word about Mr. Damon. Steinfeld and Bridges are getting some semblance of Oscar buzz, and they should (particularly Steinfeld), but my favorite performance here is Damon's. It's funny. Like, amazingly funny, but strangely funny. You've never seen anything quite like it. He's regimented, a schoolmaster who likes to scold, but also a spoiled overgrown child who pouts if he doesn't get his way. Plus, he's Texas Ranger. Did I mention that? Texas. He's from Texas. But he'll tell you. How in the world did he get a supporting nod for "Invictus" last year yet merit no buzz for this exemplary work? (Psssst....this isn't exactly what the Academy expected.)

This trio will break up and get back together and break up again but eventually, fitfully, will find its way to Tom Chaney who comes in the form of Josh Brolin whose performance is even more unexpected than Damon's, the specifics of which I will not reveal.  I must confess, though, that this climax left me a bit disappointed.  It's not that it's convenient and it's not that one particular development seems so arbitrary - it's set up, yes, but it still feels like a cheat - but that emotionally it felt so unsatisfying.  It's a steady, brilliant build for an hour and a half and then just kinda crests, kinda peaks too early.  For all its idiosyncrasies, well, the end was just so un-idiosyncratic. Well, not completely. Its coda, its last line, is coldly matter-of-fact it's still sort of haunting me.

But then those third act issues don't much matter no how because they won't stop me from cherishing Damon's exotic turn and Bridges trying to shoot some cornbread (a prime example of the film's droll humor) and the steadfast Steinfeld who at 13 is tougher and more together than I am at 33 (and will be at 53).  She makes John Wayne look like Marion Morrison.

2 comments:

Rory Larry said...

Just know Marion might rise from the grave and kick your ass for that comment.

Nicholas Prigge said...

I would like to claim this comment doesn't bother me except we all know Marion's ghost - heck, even his corpse - could pound me into oblivion.