Friday, December 24, 2010

True Grit: Larger than life

True Grit (2010) • View trailer for True Grit
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.24.10

Despite Hollywood’s current love affair with remaking almost everything under the sun, certain classics remain sacrosanct.

In a precious few cases, neither film buffs nor the general public would tolerate any attempt to improve upon perfection. The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain come to mind, and the list also includes Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane and Casablanca. (The latter did, however, suffer a TV series remake in 1983, with – no, I’m not making this up – David Soul in the Humphrey Bogart role.)
Having demonstrated her own "true grit" by fording a stream without benefit of
the nearby ferry, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) proves that she's not about to be left
behind by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, center) and Rooster (Jeff Bridges).

True Grit has been viewed the same way, not so much because the 1969 film is that good – actually, it isn’t, and hasn’t aged well at all – but because of John Wayne’s iconic portrayal of Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, which finally brought the Hollywood legend an Academy Award. Eyebrows lifted then, and have remained raised ever since: Wayne was many things, but the phrase “great actor” never could be applied to his work. Still, it was a nice way to acknowledge an impressive career, and – for better or worse – True Grit became firmly identified with Wayne’s starring performance.

And Charles Portis’ great novel, consequently, went into limbo. (More’s the pity.)

Finally, happily, somebody has seen fit to take another stab at it. And whereas the 1969 film suffered from stunt casting and a family-friendly effort to “sanitize” the storyline, this new version boasts excellent performances, a sharp and much more faithful script, and an atmosphere that does justice to the novel’s whimsical tone.

The latter is crucial. Portis blended rugged Western drama with snarky, comic sensibilities; his book can be hilarious at one moment, deadly serious the next. Needless to say, Joel and Ethan Coen are absolutely perfect for this material, since they have the same macabre and vicious sense of humor. Recall every moment that Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh was on the screen in 2007’s No Country for Old Men: He was simultaneously ludicrous – those clothes, that hairstyle – and terrifying.

This new version of True Grit doesn’t include a villain of such evil magnitude, but the story’s various rustlers, layabouts and bandits behave with oddly dignified gentility, as if following some 19th century bad guy’s manual of refinement. At the same time, they can explode into unexpected violence: an apparent contradiction that imbues even the least significant characters with added weight.

The story, following the style of Portis’ novel, is narrated by Mattie Ross at some distant remove: These are events that she recalls from her childhood, in 1878, when as a plucky, Bible-quoting 14-year-old (superbly played by Hailee Steinfeld) she set about avenging her father’s senseless murder at the hands of a cowardly varmint named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).

Armed with no more than pluck, perseverance and the oft-repeated threat of an aggressive lawyer “back home in Yell County,” Mattie arrives in Fort Smith, Ark., supposedly to settle her deceased father’s affairs and then accompany the casket back home. But Mattie has no intention of returning without first ensuring that Chaney will be caught and hanged for his crime; trouble is, the local law hasn’t the slightest interest in pursuing the man into the nearby Indian territories.

Mattie therefore takes matters into her own hands by asking after the town’s best and most ruthless U.S. marshal. This process eventually leads her to Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a world-weary, whisky-loving, one-eyed lawman with a distressing tendency – at least, in the view of various defense attorneys – of bringing back bodies rather than criminals able to stand trial.

Cogburn fails to regard Mattie seriously at first, a mistake all sorts of characters make as this story progresses, inevitably to our great amusement (and a series of marvelous slow burns and double-takes). But once money is dangled, Cogburn accepts the mission, as long as Mattie – whom he dismissively dubs “Little Sister” – remains behind.

Fat chance.

Their hunting party is augmented by a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has long been tracking Chaney – under a different alias – for a prior murder. While Mattie is willing to accept LaBoeuf’s help, she very clearly insists that Chaney be tried and hanged in Fort Smith, for her father’s murder ... not in Texas for some other crime.

Cogburn, in turn, has a jaundiced view of the talkative LaBoeuf’s Texas-style tall tales; indeed, both men spend a great deal of time trying to one-up each other. The group dynamic is dysfunctional at best, and we can’t help wondering how this unlikely trio could even find Chaney, let alone catch him.

Bridges and Damon have this story’s showier roles, but Steinfeld steals the film. It’s the disconnect between appearance and expectation; with every word and deed, Mattie shatters any preconceived notions about the way 14-year-old girls should behave (particularly those in the late 1800s). She’s a plucky, tart-tongued heroine to reckon with, and of course the story’s greatest irony is the fact that she possesses far more of the “true grit” that she seeks – and finds – in both Cogburn and LaBoeuf.

Bridges is appropriate scruffy and weather-beaten; he certainly has the look down cold. His dialogue is appropriately grizzled, as well ... what we can hear of it, anyway. Too many of Bridges’ lines are lost in the mumbling, low-throated growl that passes for Rooster’s speaking voice; he’s simply too hard to understand at times.

As a result, Steinfeld’s impeccable enunciation and high-tone command of the English language are a welcome relief (in addition to being quite amusing at times).

Damon makes a solid sidekick, and LaBoeuf has enough of his own quirks to emerge as something of an archetype. He’s stiffly formal, reflexively stubborn and quick to bridle at any perceived slight to his Texan heritage; Rooster therefore find him an easy target, and has great fun needling the younger man.

Brolin once again makes a wholly credible baddie, making Chaney a petulant, slow-witted thug. But Brolin is outdone by Barry Pepper, who pops up in the third act as “Lucky Ned,” whose gang Chaney joins. Pepper is a fascinating villain in his own right: memorably introduced as he shouts a conversation with the distant Rooster, spitting out flecks of food with every syllable (precisely the sort of crass – yet entirely credible – touch we’d expect from the Coen brothers).

The western landscape is superbly lensed by cinematography Roger Deakins, with New Mexico standing in for the story’s (primarily) Oklahoma Territory setting. The mountains and vast prairies emphasize the isolation and “smallness” of our little band of heroes, making their quest seem even more unlikely.

The story draws its power from the manner in which stubborn individuality – in Rooster, Mattie and LaBoeuf – eventually thaws into respect and cooperation. Indeed, Portis’ tale is a study in contrasts: individualism and teamwork, self-centered pride and reluctant loyalty, real life and legends. All these characters have codes of conduct; they behave according to their nature, but then observe, learn and adapt, each becoming a better person along the way.

And if the stylized portraits of these various characters seems odd, bear in mind that we’re witnessing the story as a 14-year-old girl recalls it. Naturally, in her eyes, everything – everybody – would have seemed larger than life.

Things build to a climax that will surprise those who only know this story from the 1969 film, which differs in huge respects from the way Portis concluded his book. The Coens adhere to the author’s original template, and the story’s conclusion – and bittersweet epilogue – are, as a result, even more powerful: a poignant ode to an era when larger-than-life heroes battled themselves as much as their two-legged adversaries.

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