Thursday, December 30, 2010

True Grit (2010)

Much has been made of The Coen's tinkering with the ending to their newest film True Grit – an adaptation of a novel by Charles Portis which was turned to a hugely popular film adaption by Henry Hathaway (which in turn gave screen icon John Wayne is only Oscar…but you know all of this already) – and how that tinkering makes their western – a wholly un-ironic (or, rather, un-existential) affair that is, surprisingly for the brothers, their most straight-forward narrative…ever – not so much an honest remake, but, what's that word we like to use now? Ah, it's a "reimagining." Well, truth be told I have neither read the source material, nor have I seen the original John Wayne film; therefore, I could only approach this recent telling of the story as it appeared to me: a Coen Brothers movie. It seems to me, from conversations with those who have seen the original film and read the novel, that True Grit v. 2010 is as strict an adaptation of source material as the brothers' attempt to "adapt" Cormac McCarthy a few years ago (which is to say that the "strictness" of an adaptation is really irrelevant to the quality of a film). That is they have stayed true enough to the source material all the while sprinkling in wonderful bits of Coenisms. Therefore, I felt I didn't miss anything from the experience by not knowing anything about the source material or the famous film released some 40 years ago. True Grit is not, as so many have been asserting, a "minor" Coen Brothers movie. I resent that sentiment not because True Grit deserves to be called anything better (it certainly isn't a "masterpiece"), but because the Coen's – two of our best and most challenging filmmakers today – don't have a "minor" film in them (whether or not The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty count as true Coen Brothers movies is up for debate).

True Grit – at its core – is a bildungsroman. Mattie Ross' (the wonderful Hailee Steinfeld) coming of age is what grabs our attention and keeps us interested throughout (not to mention the young actresses sure-handed way of handling the Coen vernacular). Sure, the introduction of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) are quirky and memorable, but the film's heart lies with Matty and how she remembers her journey with these two oddball characters – characters that, as odd as they may be, turn into father figures for the recently fatherless Mattie. The film's plot is well known: Mattie seeks revenge for the murder of her father. Her search leads her to the recruitment of a gruff, world-weary U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn. Along the journey, Mattie is joined (and re-joined) by Texas Ranger LeBoeuf who believes that his title of Texas Ranger is reason enough to believe that he is the best man for the job. That job is to capture one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) – the man responsible for murdering Mattie's father (which is told to us via voice over by an adult Mattie; it is shown in a beautiful opening shot that represents everything that is wonderful about the people, specifically Carter Burwell and Roger Deakins, the Coen's surround themselves with while making a movie) – who is hanging around with The Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) Gang – a gang that Cogburn has a vested interest in. And there it is; that's your story. Simple and to the point, True Grit feels more like "early" Coen Brothers than "minor" Coen Brothers.

The film definitely exists in the second tier of Coen films sitting alongside such greats O Brother Where Art Thou, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There, and The Hudsucker Proxy. Sure it's not as masterful as Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Miller's Crossing, or A Serious Man, but then again no one should expect it to be that (and how many of us would be willing to call any of the aforementioned "minor" films minor?). It is what it is: an expertly crafted (which is par for the course for the Coen Brothers) western that is the most genuine and un-ironic thing the brothers have produced. And that's what makes it so refreshing. It reminded me of why I stood in line for hours when I was younger to see a film like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; in other words, True Grit is so brilliantly entertaining and such a great time at the movies that it reminded me of why I still consider going to the theater to see a movie. The crowd I saw True Grit with was all-in despite the film essentially being a western in the vein of Raising Arizona: heavy on eccentric characters spouting even more eccentric and, for lack of a better term, Coen-esque dialogue; they were hanging on every word and laughing at every idiosyncratic turn of the film's narrative. It's rare for an audience in my city to be so enraptured by a film billed as a revenge film that was instead light on action and heavy on character and plot development. The Coen's have made a fine film in the tradition of the great classic westerns (it reminded me of the Clint Eastwood-helmed westerns, most notably The Outlaw Josey
Wales) in how the story leisurely unfolds before its audience without a care for pacing (and that's a good thing).

But then a funny thing happens: the film switches tones in a final moment that is everything we come to expect aesthetically from the Coen Brothers. Rooster, in full-fledged father mode, carries a snake-bitten Mattie across the Wild West by starlight. It's a moment that shows off the well-known skills of DP Roger Deakins (which shows he can shoot the classic western as well as the artier western – as he did a few years back with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and the lesser-known skills of musician Carter Burwell. It's a moment that is elegiac (as all westerns tend to be nowadays) and beautiful in scope; Deakins takes advantages of the wide-open vistas and paints as beautiful a picture as we come to expect from adept cinematographers who tackle the western. About Burwell: he is the star of the film as his music recalls the obvious allusions to Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, but it also reminded me of how his minimalist approach is able to evoke genuine emotion despite working with filmmakers we usually don't call "emotional" filmmakers (he also wrote the brilliant score for Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich – which again makes the film even better by making the film more emotional than you would think considering the "quirkiness" of the film's story), for existentialism doesn't traditionally lend itself to overt emotional evocations. The music stayed with me long after the images of the film.

As I've already mentioned, True Grit is something of an anomaly: it is simultaneously a rip-roaring great time at the theater and a genuine genre film made by two filmmakers who are not known for their straight-forward approach to genre films. I say anomaly because the experience I had seeing True Grit in the theater was vastly different than the experience I had seeing No Country for Old Men in the theater. And that's where the interesting dilemma begins for me: in the pantheon of Coen films True Grit is definitely second tier, but when I compare it to other films of this year it stands out in the way all Coen films stand out. No one can make (aesthetic choices) a movie and tell a story (quirky narrative and a knack for quotability) like the Coens. True Grit reminded me a lot of Raising Arizona in dialogue (especially the way Damon utters the line: "I thought you were going to say that the sun was in your eye…that is to say you're eye.") and aesthetic (the final "race against time" scene reminded me of the energy of the great chase scene that begins in a super market and goes through people's houses) .  But I think the film is most akin to Coen's brilliant 1987 comedy in the way the story arc plays out. I had the same reaction emotionally to True Grit that I do whenever I watch Raising Arizona. Both are films that take you on a journey that contains action and laughs, but both films end on a quiet note of contemplation about how we spend the time we are afforded in life.

I'm sure subsequent viewings will make me admire True Grit even more, but the feeling I had after I left the theater was that – despite my great admiration for the film – I'll have an easier time of forgetting what it is I saw than I did after I watched No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man (and Burn After Reading, for that matter). But so what? The brothers Coen are allowed a pass considering the streak they've been on, and even though I dislike the assertion that True Grit is a "minor" film, it certainly has the feeling of a film I will revere now yet have trouble remembering three years from now. If True Grit tells us anything, it is that the Coen brothers just may be creatively tapped-out. I hope True Grit offers them the respite they deserve. The scary thing, though, is that True Grit comes off as a hell of a film, a place holder, to release during one's "off" period, and the ending of the film (an elegiac remembrance on the loss of time) is something that rings so Coen – not to mention it's an ending like their previous two films that makes you contemplate for days and rethink the entire film – that it makes me wonder what they have in their creative hopper. Whatever is next for them, True Grit stands as a great place holder that shouldn't be punished just because of the lofty expectations that come with the name "Coen" being attached to a film. It's a great entertainment.


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  2. Kevin, I know we are arguing degrees here, but with descriptions such as "not as masterful" and "second tier," it sounds like you're damning TRUE GRIT with faint praise.

    This may be the Coens' most mainstream films, but I'm not sure that this isn't one of their most masterful as well. They've finally successfully addressed one of the challenges which has so far eluded them in the past: making an extremely Coenesque film while still managing to make it both entertaining and accessible for an audience outside their loyal cult.

  3. "True Grit reminded me a lot of Raising Arizona [etc.]"

    THANK YOU. I'm hearing way too many people, pro- and anti- the film, specifically mentioning how it doesn't "feel" Coenesque, when I thought the characterisations and dialogue were incredibly reminiscent of that film, and to a much smaller degree O Brother. It has all of their quirks; it's one of the best parts of the movie that those quirks can sit atop a conventional narrative so easily.

    That said, I'm one of the people who unabashedly used the word "minor", and I stick by it. Though I think I mean "minor" in almost exactly the same way you mean "second-tier" - as a relative measure, not an absolute one. It doesn't feel like they're challenging themselves, and of course they're so entitled.

    Also, we might have to have a fistfight over your outrageous slander of Barton Fink as "second-tier".

  4. Tony:

    Yes, I think we are talking about degrees. I don't think a Coen film has to be non-mainstream to be masterful (nor do I think you're saying that), but what I tried to convey through the review was there was something missing -- however small it may be -- from the movie. When I left the theater, I knew I had seen a great movie -- a great Coen movie, no less -- but I knew that it wasn't as good as their best stuff.I think Tim pointed out in his review that as insane as it sounds, when the Coen's make a movie that is just really good instead of really freaking great...well something just doesn't feel right. It's an unfair onus to put on the filmmakers, but I can't deny the feeling that I had seen a really well made movie; however, I didn't see something that was wholly memorable in terms of Coen Brothers films.

    I think I'm hedging my bets a bit here...I understand that. I use the term "second tier" because I think it's less damming than "minor," which is the word that being tossed around a lot. For me, "minor" means it's a film not worth considering. Whereas "second tier" just places the film within the appropriate context of the Coen pantheon.

    I'm rambling a bit here, but I think "not as masterful" is a relative term. I'm guessing that if I were to see the film again -- which I would have no qualms about doing -- and you and I had a conversation about it,

  5. (got cut off by blogger)

    I'm rambling a bit here, but I think "not as masterful" is a relative term. I'm guessing that if I were to see the film again -- which I would have no qualms about doing -- and you and I had a conversation about it then you and I would have a lot to agree about. Again, I don't think this comes as a surprise to you since you say from the onset of your comment that you think we're talking degrees....I just wanted to try and clarify.

    It is my favorite western that's been made "genuinely" or in the classical style since OPEN RANGE.

    In short: were I to assign the film a grade I would go with B+

    It just seems weird -- considering the last three films the Coen's have made -- to think of any of their films as something other than an A+ effort.

  6. Tim:

    You're absolutely right about the use of the terms "minor" and "second-tier," and how we're both using them as relative terms. That's exactly what I meant. I think I actually had quite a similar response to you; that is when I left the theater I knew I had seen something great...just not "Coen" great as it means thanks to their ridiculous recent run of brilliant films.

    And yes, regardless how one feels about the film I don't understand how people are saying that this film doesn't feel Coen-esque.


    It's on Netflix Instant View. It has been years (maybe 10) since I've seen it, and I know I need to see it again, but I remember not thinking it was one of my favorite Coen Brothers experience. However, I was 18 and fully entrenched in the "FARGO and BLOOD SIMPLE are the best" mindset (which is not to say that isn't a bad mindset), but any of their comedies that wasn't RAISING ARIZONA I was having a hard time embracing at the time. Perhaps I can liken it to how you mention it took you three viewings to appreciate MILLER'S CROSSING?

    Let me re-watch it here in the next couple of days and then we can discuss whether or not we need to throw down! Hehe.

    Thanks for checking this out, Tim.

  7. Great review. I understand the new movie follows the book closer than the original movie did. I'm adding this to my 'wish list' for 2011. Thanks.

  8. Nice review Kevin. I'm with you as far as being mystified by those who think the movie isn't very "Coeny" I mean the cadence alone ("That would be alright") sets it apart.

  9. "I understand the new movie follows the book closer than the original movie did." - Lisa

    I have seen the original movie many times and I have read the novel, and both movies are very faithful to the book. The Coens include the ending as in the novel; but the 1969 ending establishes the same tone.

    Both movies are so faithful to the book that the Coens' movie and the 1969 movie include many of the same scenes, some staged very similarly, and much of the same dialogue. Throughout, the new version plays like a new production of an old play. Also, the 1969 version includes a number of scenes that are in the novel that are not included in the Coens' film.

    I agree with many of the comments above - that this is a straight-forward, enjoyable Western.

  10. Kevin, I know exactly what you mean when you say the movie is a great entertainment but is "not as masterful" as their best films. I walked into this movie (having read Charles Portis' book) hoping the Coens' had something powerful in store, and was mildly disappointed when I got my money's worth but didn't get a masterpiece. I think the movie is better than the book, for one thing, but that probably won't make me any friends.

    Is every version of True Grit going to be celebratory of Old West justice? What I'm complaining about is the Coens' refusal to make this anything more than a rousing vengeance story. The sentimental themes of this film about "retribution" and how "punishment comes one way or another" are crass contradictions of the very opposite statements made by the Coens in Miller's Crossing, Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Those films got to the soul of hateful crime. This movie just basically slaps it around like a 50's housewife.

  11. Hokahey:

    Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you did, too, because it's nice to have some context here in the comments. I haven't read the novel, nor have I seen the John Wayne movie, so I really wasn't affected -- positively or negatively -- by the way the Coen's stuck to the spirit of the source material, or, how they may have changed some things around. I was just entertained as hell throughout.

  12. Adam:

    I read your blog post. You were thinking about this movie on a whole other level than I was. I saw it -- and have subsequently thought of it -- through a strict formalist lens. I rarely do that (especially with the Coen's!), but thinking back on the film I can't think of anything other than its formalist elements that are worth ruminating on. Now, obviously I need to see it again so I can try and find the subtext to the film, but I only kind-of see where you're coming from.

    It's an interesting angle, and I definitely thought of Margie, and her philosophy on life, throughout the film; however, after reading your piece I found myself wondering if there's anything inherently wrong about it just being a movie about vengeance? One of the things I loved about OPEN RANGE so much was that it marked a turning point, in my opinion, for the modern western. What I mean by that is this: OPEN RANGE was the first western since UNFORGIVEN to just be a western. The genre, after UNFORGIVEN, was obsessed thereafter with explicating its darker themes. Which is good. The western has, for the most part, given itself to that kind of reading. But OPEN RANGE (and to an extent the much weaker, more benign TOMBSTONE) are celebrations of the way the western used to be before certain autuers like Nicholas Ray started taking a darker approach to it.

    Now, does that mean I wouldn't have enjoyed (or wasn't somewhat looking for) the type of TRUE GRIT you were looking for? Of course I would have enjoyed that movie...but after about 20 minutes I could see what kind of movie the Coen's were making, and, considering the size of the audience and how much fun they were having, I think it's great that they've been able to make as mainstream a "Coen movie" as possible. I don't fault them at all for making the movie a basic story about vengeance. I'll give them a pass on this one for not going beyond the surface by failing to use the genre as a vehicle for a deeper rumination on violence in society.

    I just can't find myself being as harsh as you are on the Coen's here. My hesitance in calling the film a masterpiece was that I felt like it was the Coen's doing what they do best at about half-speed. The people they surround themselves with (the actors, Burwell, Deakins, et al) are always on their game, and that elevates the film quite a bit. I would liken it to when Soderbergh made the OCEAN movies. Well-made, finely acted, enjoyable-as-hell, but ultimately empty affairs.

  13. I just saw the movie over the weekend and enjoyed reading your review of it and the ensuing comments.

    I loved how the film was unabashedly an "old school" Western -- politically incorrect and unashamed of its simplistic morality. I certainly have loved many of the deconstuctionist Westerns post-UNFORGIVEN, but it was just refreshing to see a straight Western made with the Coen-esque acting/dialogue/photography. So while the lack of deep meaning does pretty much push this to the second tier of Coen films, it doesn't make it any less of an exhilarating viewing.

    What bugged me most was the epilogue. The problem with having a film with no real thematic resonance is that when you try to tack it on in the last 5 minutes, it comes up hollow. I'm not sure if that's from the book or not (and perhaps the book handled it better) but it seemed like a huge miss to me, especially after the outstanding fever dream sequence that preceded it.

    Also -- BARTON FINK is top 5 Coen Brothers for me. I'd give it another try, as watching it now makes it seem way more in line with their overall output than it must have at the time it was released.