Wednesday, December 22, 2010

True Grit -The Coens make their first Western — and it's one of the best movies of their career.

True enough: The 2010 movie True Grit—film No. 15 for the Coen Brothers—bears certain resemblance to the 1969 film of the same title, which starred John Wayne and featured some campy singing from Glen Campbell. The new one doesn't have any singing, but it's hard to miss a few parallels. The plot's almost the same as the original. And the character names.
But the Coens insist it's not a remake, and in fact, they haven't seen The Duke's movie since they were kids. It is, rather, a more faithful adaptation of the classic American novel by Charles Portis, which provided a slightly looser basis for the 1969 film. Not everyone quite buys it, but if you see this new version, you'll be convinced that the Coens are as steadfastly true as ever to their own spirit—and the relationship of the original to this one is simply an interesting historical footnote.
Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn
The 2010 version really is a more faithful adaptation of the Portis novel—much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book—and yet it still plays out like the quintessential Coen Brothers. There's a lot of deadpan humor, interspersed with outbursts of violence, and as the bodies stack higher the humor becomes blacker, and more ridiculous. The characters speak in a slightly exaggerated dialect that isn't based on any particular land or geographic locale, but rather takes joy in the sheer sound of the words and rhythmic poetry of the backwoods cadence. And though this is arguably the first true Western for the Coens, the formal similarities—to movies like No Country for Old Men and even The Big Lebowski—are difficult to miss.
Here is a girl who has been forced to grow up too fast. More than once we see her literally sleeping with death surrounding her—she spends a night in a funeral home, sleeping in a coffin with corpses all around, and later she spends the night in a house where there's just been a gunfight, and the bodies are still warm as they lay out on the front porch—but her attitude toward it is dispassionate. It's just part of her life and her world.

So she heads into town, her father's death still fresh on her mind, and seeks to put his affairs in order. When some townspeople try to take advantage of her youth, she informs them in no uncertain terms of her legal rights and the lengths she will go to to see justice served, and she comes out the victor in every one of her run-ins. She wields the law like a sword, unhesitant to sick her attorney on people or turn to the courts for aid when it suits her needs. But we know that, for Mattie, the law is just a means to an end; she is not out for justice, but vengeance, and though she learns that the man who killed her father is wanted in another state for another crime, seeing him brought to justice under those circumstances isn't enough. He must pay for the crimes he committed against the Ross family particularly, or else she simply doesn't care.

So she turns to a gruff, unkempt drunkard of a man named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). We first see him in a court room and later learn that when he was a younger man he studied law, ultimately deciding it just wasn't for him; like Mattie, he sees the wheels of justice as useful means to an end, but he is unable to actually keep the law in his own life, and so he operates outside it. She deems his unorthodox methods to be a better match for her purposes, and so the two of them set out to find the man who shot her papa.
What might need to be said is this: For all its pleasures, there is a sort of lingering melancholy that makes the movie stay with you. In the theater, I thought it was a zany Coen comedy along the lines of Raising Arizona or Lebowski, but as I reflected on it later I realized it to be a much sadder and wiser film than it initially seems. It's a movie about death, and about justice and revenge. It's also a movie about manhood, as seen through the eyes of a young girl whose only examples of manhood are limited and flawed. (Aren't we all?) We see these men through her eyes, and we see how it shapes her into the woman she becomes. In some ways, the way all this plays out is a little bit subversive for a Western; of course, it's also about as pure and unironic a genre picture as these filmmakers have yet made. In other words, typical Coen Brothers.

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