Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Early Review: True Grit

If there are better filmmakers than Joel and Ethan Coen alive and working today, then I’d like to meet them. The seemingly effortless way they control the tone of their films and the brilliance of their craftsmanship are second to none. I’ve often said that, if one wanted to make a film, all that’s necessary is to watch No Country For Old Men for a “textbook” example of how do to do the job right. True Grit is the next chapter in that book.

True Grit is based on a 1969 film with John Wayne, which was itself based on a 1968 novel. All three feature a quest to find the man who killed 14 year old Maddie Ross’ father, with Maddie helped by Marshal Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn and La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger. Now, I can’t speak for the novel, because I haven’t read it. However, the Coen Brothers’ film is so much of an improvement over the original that it suggests the difference between the Jonas Brothers and the Beatles. It’s all pop music, but they are NOT, by any stretch of the imagination, doing the same thing.

The script is fantastic. Joel and Ethan have more than found a way to walk the narrative tightrope between retelling a well-known story and putting their own spin on things. Their version is much more organic than Marguerite Roberts’ original. I was amazed at how much more fluid the film’s pacing is. Most of the same moments, conversations, and setpieces take place, but they’re allowed to do so within a narrative rhythm, where certain bits in the original stuck out in awkward places. Joel and Ethan’s seamless script takes the same moments and, through changing the timing or setting, infuses the story with an energy and vitality that just wasn’t there the first time around.

It’s because of the structural tightening that True Grit really takes flight. Not surprisingly, the Coens bring out a lot of the story's inherent humor. I found myself cracking up all throughout the film, and not always when everyone else in the theater was too. I’m ok with that. What’s more, their version of the post-Civil War South feels so much more real than anything that the original accomplished. Where 1969’s take was squeaky clean and refined, 2010 is still refined, but much, much grimier, leaner, and meaner.

Jeff Bridges’ performance. . . oh, wow. He’s five times the actor John Wayne ever was. (yes, I said it) While Wayne's Cogburn was a charming character because of his self-consciousness as a performer, Bridges effortlessly goes further than that. He brings a remarkable sense of depth to the character. Instead of only being an old man who wants to do things his way and usually ends up shooting anyone who tries to stop him, he’s a gruff guy who can barely be understood a lot of the time. He drinks too much and sometimes says things that he doesn’t mean. Mostly, he’s got a very simple way of looking at the world. After making Maddie climb a tall tree to identify and cut down a dead man hanging there, he turns him over and says, “I do not know this man.” And it’s hilarious.

You know why? It’s because it’s true. He doesn’t know the guy.

Like The Big Lebowski and the Dude who only wanted his rug back because it tied the room together, Cogburn needed to find out if the man was who they were looking for, was too old/heavy to climb the tree, made Maddie do it, and it just wasn’t the right guy. Case closed. That’s where a lot of the Coen Brothers’ humor comes from. Their jokes aren’t anything revolutionary, and they’re not even that complicated. They just have the guts/balls/chutzpah/common sense to say things out loud that are completely obvious.

The direction and editing are wonderful. By serving as “Roderick Jaynes,” their own editor, Joel and Ethan are able to alternately shoot and select exactly the shots they want. Sometimes, when I’m watching a film, I want to stretch out my hands, make them into a rectangular window, and try to capture what I’m seeing. I think of those shots as shots that were born rather than created. True Grit has many born moments, and they're beautiful.

There’s another aspect of the Coens’ craft that often goes unlooked. They have the souls of poets. No matter what type of film they’re making, there’s an element of what Herzog refers to as a “deeper truth, an ecstasy of truth.” Whether it’s the evocative simplicity of the ending of No Country For Old Men, the Dude and Walter’s hug on the cliff in The Big Lebowski, or the rumination on the meaning of life in the police car in Fargo, they’re quietly at work creating some of the most affecting moments in cinema today. It’s not enough for Joel and Ethan to just tell a story. They find a way to leave the viewer with something that connects that story to daily life. Here, in a story that’s been told for years, there’s a sense that more is at hand than simple retribution for a crime committed. Time passes. Children are forced to grow up too soon. Men must admit that they are wrong. People grow old. “Time has a way of moving past us.” I am grateful, so grateful, for these moments.

As True Grit neared its conclusion, there’s a sequence where two characters on horseback race against time, and you know what, reader? I got a little bit emotional. 2010’s been such a lackluster year for cinema that it was like giving a hungry man a meal. On the inside, I was crying out, “THIS is how you make a movie. This is how you do it.” I’m reminded of something Emily Dickinson said once. Someone asked her what poetry was and she said that she didn’t know how to describe it, but when she read something and felt like the top of her head was being blown off, then that was poetry. She knew it when she found it. That’s what True Grit is. I may get tongue-tied if you ask me exactly what makes a great film, but I know how it feels when I find it.

People often look fondly at older films and say, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” They’re right.

Here, Joel and Ethan Coen didn’t make one like folks used to. They made one better.

4 ½ stars (out of 5)


Mr. Vickroy said...

Commie Bastage.

" ... better actor than John Wayne ..."

That's like "... better writer than George Lucas ..."


Adam said...

I think George Lucas is a great writer from a conceptual standpoint. It's in the fine touches that he falls short. If only he'd turned over his drafts of the Prequels to someone like Lawrence Kasdan, if not LK himself, to finish. THAT might have been something.

Adam Zanzie said...

Here, in a story that’s been told for years, there’s a sense that more is at hand than simple retribution for a crime committed. Time passes. Children are forced to grow up too soon. Men must admit that they are wrong. People grow old. “Time has a way of moving past us.” I am grateful, so grateful, for these moments.

Come to my site later, Adam. I recently published a post in which I express why I'm officially *worried* about the Coens' remake; and since you've seen the film perhaps you can clear me up on some things. I've got a chance to see it for free at an advanced screening later today.

I'm at the very least thankful that you've said their film is about just more than "retribution for a crime" because that's precisely what I despise the original Henry Hathaway film and also have some reservations towards the Charles Portis novel--because *neither* of them go farther than that banal theme. But knowing the genius of the Coens, naturally I'll expect more from them.

Adam said...

@Adam: having taken a look at your post, I can see that you've given a lot of thought to/gotten fairly worked up over the implications of the central conflict of the True Grit story. Personally, I can't help but wonder if you're reading a bit too much into the whole thing. At its core, isn't the story one of a young person who is goes on a quest/journey with a guide and grows up in the process? (which is, in itself, a time-honored archetype)

After seeing the Coen Bros' film, I spoke with a friend who was also in attendance. He was of the opinion that the crux of the film is summed up in phrase that Rooster utters as he falls to his knees late in the film. (would say more, but I don't want to spoil anything for those who haven't seen it yet) Also, given the film's epilogue, I'm inclined to believe that the film's message/central focus is related to both Maddie's coming of age and discovery of individuals she will come to consider part of her family, i.e. the idea that certain people become "kin" without having ever been related to us by blood.

Of course, I say that bit about you maybe reading too much into the story with a bit of my tongue in my cheek. You are, don't forget, talking to the man who tee'd off on Star Trek with a glorious vengeance, and would probably do so again right now, given the chance.

Adam Zanzie said...

Yeah, I've definitely read a lot into the story. Moreso than most, in fact--but this is really because I read the book and saw the Hathaway/Wayne movie first, and came to the movie prepared to snipe at certain things. Mind you, I didn't want to snipe. I love the Coens so much. They've made life-changing movies for me. At times watching True Grit I was quite sure they were crafting, in front of my very eyes, one of the best American movies ever made. But in the end, they cave in to the limitations of the Charles Portis text. I wish they had elected instead to transcend it.

For example, your mentioning of how the film might be simply about Mattie's coming-of-age during this journey. What has she learned during this coming-of-age that has made her any different than she was at the beginning (besides, obviously, an amputated limb)? That there's power in killing a man and delivering vengeance? What's so insightful about that?

There's a famous scene in Eastwood's Unforgiven when Will Muny says, "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he's got, and everything he's ever gonna have." I don't think it ever occured to the Coens that True Grit is a complete rejection of that theme.

Adam said...

Readers not named Adam Zanzie: if you haven't seen the film, proceed with caution

Adam, I think that the way the story transcends the revenge narrative is twofold. I mentioned both earlier, but let me go into greater detail.

The first is related to the character of Maddie Ross herself. When the story begins, she's idealistic, headstrong, and full of youthful inexperience in the ways of the "real world." Time and again, we see her assuming that she's capable of much more than she really can. In the Coen film, she's better equipped to handle her surroundings than she is in the Hathaway film, but these are still traits that both versions of the character share. I think that what sets the new film apart from its predecessor is the prologue/epilogue from a 40-year old Maddie's perspective. This is an older and wiser person looking back upon her life and remembering the period of time that came to define who she would become. What's more, she's a loner. The young Maddie sought out the company of others willingly, doggedly believing that she could (with good cause) make them do what she needed to do. I don't doubt that the older Maddie has the same determination, but there's so much more of a sadness present in her. She's looking back at this moment, thrilled that she's going to be able to see the man who saved her life, and, I'd argue, become a replacement father figure in her own mind. Instead of the somewhat silly scene at the end of Hathaway's film in which she tells Cogburn that she would be honored to bury him on her family's plot when the time comes, there's a very different resolution. Rather than talking about this with him at all, she acts. The other Maddie suggested something, but this Maddie DOES it.

Secondly, when Cogburn falls to his knees upon getting Maddie to safety, he says, "I've grown old." It's been suggested to me that this line is the summation of what the film's really about. Cogburn is an aging man who has believed that he's more than capable of doing things the same way he's always done it, and now he's learned that even he has limits. Another counterpoint to Maddie's decision to move his body to her family's plot is Cogburn's decision to leave her once she was out of danger but before she regained consciousness. Is this just Rooster being himself, or is this his way of leaving (maybe even shamefully) before she has the chance to see him as he now sees himself?