Sunday, January 02, 2011

True Grit / **** (PG-13)

Rooster Cogburn: Jeff Bridges
Mattie Ross: Hailee Steinfeld
LaBoeuf: Matt Damon
Tom Chaney: Josh Brolin
Lucky Ned Pepper: Barry Pepper

Paramount Pictures presents a film written for the screen and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. Based on the novel by Charles Portis. Running time: 110 min. Rated: PG-13 (for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images).

It’s kind of a tradition in westerns to have town names that mean something related to the story. Although many of the names are real town names, they lend a character to the locations in the western landscape that help shape the story. Cities with names like Contention and Deadwood help to set the tone of the western and characterize the story in a way that is stylized and as unique to America as the western genre itself. It wouldn’t have surprised me to find a city in the new version of the western classic “True Grit” named Gumption.

Mattie Ross, as portrayed by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, is the definition of the word gumption. In the opening moments of the new film she spends a night in a room full of dead bodies. She berates an entrepreneur and gets him to buy her dead father’s ponies and then sell her one back for much less than he had paid her for it. She persuades the most ruthless marshal in the county to take her into dangerous Indian territory to track down her father’s killer, and she spends two nights in bed with a snoring, blanket stealing grandmother.

The marshal she induces to help her in her quest to bring justice to her father’s killer is the incorrigible and morally ambiguous old fart of a character, Rueben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, played in another virtuoso performance by Jeff Bridges (“Crazy Heart”). Bridges brings more of that “so old he’s forgotten more about life than anyone else ever knew” aspect to the character than John Wayne did in the original film version of “True Grit”. Bridges and the writing by Joel and Ethan Coen filter a good deal of comedy through this notion of the character, going so far as to introduce Cogburn while he’s having a particularly difficult time working out issues of the bowels in an outhouse. This scene also helps to illustrate Mattie’s gumption.

Tagging along for the ride, sometimes through invitation, sometimes as an annoyance to Cogburn, is the Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, also out for the head of the same man who killed Mattie’s father, Tom Chaney. Matt Damon (“Green Zone”) plays against his action hero type here as he and the Coens have made Laboeuf a slightly goofy lawman—possibly due to the amount of time he’s been tracking Chaney. The Ranger often places his own foot in his mouth and spends much of the film talking with a lisp he acquired by biting through his tongue during a gunfight.

The villains of the film aren’t awarded much screen time, as Cogburn is quick to deal out his particular brand of justice. Chaney and his even more threatening boss, Lucky Ned Pepper, are given the most consideration. Despite their desperate appearance they’re portrayed by Josh Brolin (“No Country For Old Men”) and Barry Pepper (“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”) respectively as intelligent men. Pepper in particular is a thoughtful character, not quick to rash decisions, making him much more dangerous than your typical western criminal.

Many critics have questioned just what makes this a Coen brothers’ movie. The producing/directing/writing team is known for their unusual subject matter, quirky characters, and unconventional plot structures. Some critics have argued that “True Grit” seems almost too normal to be a Coen brothers’ movie. I would disagree. Certainly the plot structure is typical of the western genre, but gone are the days when the western is a typical genre. Perhaps it is what is atypical about this particular western that makes it perfect Coen brothers material.

Most westerns are just as much about the villains as they are about the heroes, some even concentrate more on the criminal element. Even modern westerns, such as “Unforgiven” or the recent remake of “3:10 to Yuma”, focus on the conflict between good and bad; but as I said, not much attention is given to the bad guys in this one. The focus is squarely on the heroes, and more importantly the differences between them. They aren’t cast in that golden perfection that most western heroes were cast in before Clint Eastwood redefined the western hero. They are each imperfect, and yet they are each right in their own unique form of nobility.

LaBouef is the closest to the classic western hero with his spurred boots and leather tasseled outfit. His strict adherence to the way things are “supposed” to be done and his self-righteousness are also what get in his way and turn him into a comic character. Cogburn is also fairly typical as the hero enforcer who achieved justice in ways that are questionable in their severity; but unlike Wayne, who played this same type of character in several westerns, Bridges wears his flaws right out where everyone can see them. This makes his actions seem more bullheaded and morally indignant than anything approaching noble. He’s a drunk, a liar, and even a quitter at one point; but somehow he comes through in the end.

It’s Mattie who is the rock of the bunch. And, although it’s Bridges performance that is the most flamboyant and entertaining, the young Steinfeld is what holds the Coens’ movie together. She defines the “grit” that the other two heroes must mettle up to. Any wavering in her assignment, and the whole production comes crumbling down.

The Coens also populate their western landscape with many odd characters, including a man wearing a bear head for a hat, a criminal stooge that communicates through animal sounds, and an old woman who’s willing to share her bed but not the covers.

But the Coens don’t stop at taking an unconventional approach to conventional story structure and characters. They fill the movie with various Coen signatures. They have always excelled at unique and striking visuals. The western is a perfect canvas for their visual grandiosity. At one point Cogburn thinks he’s tracked his prey into a corner, and the Coens provide a bold image of the lawman standing strong at the end of a mineshaft. The shot is photographed from inside the mineshaft with Cogburn in full figure and darkness all around him. The darkness of the mineshaft represents the reality of Cogburn’s conclusion that he now has no idea where his prey is, since the shaft is empty.

I, like others, questioned the notion of the Coen brothers tackling such an iconic western story as “True Grit” when I first read of it. However, it’s apparent that they realized better than we what a perfect fit their brand of filmmaking was for the western genre. Westerns have always had interesting characters. Their themes have always used the archetypes of those characters to explore ideas of what makes being righteous right. The frontier setting has always been used a backdrop for exploring new ideas about humanity through images that are as new to the viewer as they were to the brave people who first explored that frontier. With “True Grit”, the Coens have mastered yet another genre and proved that a fresh take on a genre classic can be worth as much as any original story.


bucko said...

Nicely done! I appreciate how you highlighted the stock characters and expectations of the genre without condescension. I agree that it's a well-made western.

Andrew D. Wells said...

Thank you for the kind words, Bucko. From your blog, I'd say you'd know a well-made western when you see one.