Monday, January 03, 2011

A Second Look At "True Grit"

Last night, I began what I thought would be a live-blog of True Grit. I scrapped it without posting as it was basically a series of line quotations; presumably you don't come to the blog to watch me take dictation.


It's a testament to the Coen Bros singular voice and gift with language that they can launch a movie with a particularly evocative scriptural quotation
"The wicked flee when none pursueth."Proverbs 28:1
...and begin topping it straightaway with their own words. Or what one assumes are their own words since this is an adaptation. Confession: I have not read the Charles Portis novel or seen the John Wayne film. I've been allergic to John Wayne for as long as I can remember and the only successful antihistamine I've yet encountered is Montgomery Clift (see Red River. Literally. See it. What a film!)

True Grit is an extremely mannered film. That's not a qualitative judgment, just an observation. As I stated in my 7 word review "even the horses act with meticulous predetermination." Which is to say --  here comes the qualitative judging -- this particular movie could stand to breathe in a little of its cold night air or just to stumble from its saddle, the way Rooster does once he's fallen to drink. True Grit doesn't feel entirely human. No Country For Old Men benefitted enormously from the Coen Bros machine-like control of cinema. It made the whole film feel malevolent and underlined its thematic death march. That level of inhuman control is not as much to your advantage when you're telling a story about a little girl out to avenge her father's death.

The plot setup, in case you haven't yet seen it, is that Cheney (Josh Brolin) has killed Mattie Ross's (Hailee Steinfeld) father and fled. Since the law doesn't seem to care Mattie hires a Marshall Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her daddy's killer. A Texas ranger (Matt Damon) accompanies them. Mattie admires men with grit and she's got the stuff herself, but none of the characters (including Mattie) have much in the way of emotional depth. Some, like the villains, are straight up types / cartoons.


 The performances are often amusing but these roles are but tiny sandboxes in which the actors can play. Matt Damon is quite funny in that casual fraternal way of his. Josh Brolin and Hailee Steinfeld don't fare as well, especially on second viewing, adding a stiff "I'm acting now" vibe to the film's already overt mannerisms. These can't be the easiest lines to say -- think for a moment on how hard it is to speak naturally without contractions -- but sometimes, particularly with Steinfeld, the dialogue is spoken as if it were lines rather than verbalized thoughts. Even in two-character scenes, she's monologuing rather than conversing. I continue to be bewildered by the intense praise and awardage Steinfeld is receiving for what is, at best, a solid performance of an endearing lead role, and what is, at worst, an adequate reading of a role that could have elevated the film if there were more complex subtext. There's precious little nuance or backstory teased out which keeps the role in its one dimensional origin space. Arguably Steinfeld also hits those non-verbal notes to convey Mattie thinking or scheming a bit too hard. Is she telling us that Mattie is less clever than she thinks she is or is this merely overplaying?

Best in show, and by an enormous margin with a star turn that deepens on second viewing, is Jeff Bridges as the sozzled Rooster Cogburn. The actor knows that this already iconic role is a rich opportunity for showmanship and understands its imitations otherwise, so he zeroes in on the voice and the physicality, both of which can be readily aped at home to further endear people to the character and actor. (Pop culture statisticians tell us that "I can't do nuthin' for you, son" has already been quoted with amateur approximations of Rooster's voice at least 36,230 times since December 22nd from people of both sexes and of all ages in over 4 different countries. I'm rooting for "performin' his necessaries" to also hit it big.)

Bridges' best decision is that tilted stare, sometimes with his head just slightly yanked backwards; is Rooster trying to refocus his eyes? 'I mean his eye.' He continually holds that stare a shade too long. There's just so much humor in the way Rooster sizes up each character. Even better is that Rooster has the same reaction to surprising lines that are lobbed his way. He treats them like verbal pistol-cocking and he'd best locate a target.

The Coen Bros are beloved of cinephiles and it's not hard to understand why. Filmmakers like the brothers force you to think about the construction of films, because you suddenly notice that every shot, every cut, every moment represents a choice. The dark side of this is that the mannered films perpetually risk devouring themselves like an oroborus or, be they less aggressive or more pretentious, merely sticking their head up their own arse. Excessive stylization is also anathema to viewers who don't like to be confronted by the man (or men) behind the curtain while they're watching films. But on second viewing, the belabored filmmaking proves more boon than bane though and makes the movie quite a lot funnier.

And as everyone has noted, the technical elements are lovely. Roger Deakins' cinematography is beautifully expressive as well as just being plainly beautiful and the editing is top notch. (It's less discussed than their writing skills but aren't the Coens just as gifted in the editing bay?) Nick once called the dissolve a more "soulful" option than a cut and the Coen Bros lean on it a lot here. It works well for the film.  What True Grit lacks in heart and warmth it nearly makes up for in cool soul.

Best line in the movie? It comes during a fade to black near the beginning of the picture as Mattie crashes at the local undertakers before beginning her trip with Rooster.
"If you would like to sleep in a coffin, it would be all right."
It's a comic line in direct context but it's so much more, too. Could there be a slyer preceding line for such a willful march towards vengeance? And could there be a more perfect line to illustrate the often morbid comic sensibility of the Coen brothers?

Speaking of death...



True Grit really sticks its landing which is so important and so hard for movies to do. [VAGUE SPOILER] The climactic nighttime run, which needs to be the most operatically emotional moment in the movie, is just that. Bridges lends the scene natural gravitas and the brave surreal length of that race against the clock is superbly handled. The 25 years later coda, which we also need, is more surprising but ends the movie on just the right note of starch. Mattie (now played by Elizabeth Marvel, the acclaimed stage actress who we're betting is the new Coen regular) has never been a particularly emotional or fun-loving girl and though "time gets away from us" we know it hasn't actually changed her all that much.

B (up from B-)

41 comments:

Paul Outlaw said...

Nat, this is one of my favorite Matt Damon performances. He nails this character. I'd say he's in the top 7 for an Oscar nod.

I'm a big fan of this film. The Coens' "machinelike control" is something also often attributed to Nolan and Fincher, but I prefer it to the "fluffy control" of directors like Ron Howard.

I like to think of True Grit and its heroine as Old Testament inexorable.

JA said...

Wow Nat, it's weird - I was writing up my thoughts on True Grit just now before reading this and it's weird how similar I think our thoughts are, although you took more time and care to express them so now I can just point at what you said and yell ditto! ;-)

But like I say at MNPP my best in show for the film is Damon, who I agree with Paul Outlaw above on - he susses out something beautifully sweet and sad from LaBoeuf.

NATHANIEL R said...

JA -- wow that is weird (we even use some of the phraseology. It's like we're those evil "critics" who just copy press notes. haha.

weirder still is that no one is commenting even though supposedly everyone is obsessed with this film at the moment.

gabrieloak said...

Nat, calling No Country for Old Men a "death march" clarifies for me why I hated that film and why I don't connect to a lot of their work.

The Coens are expert technicians and great cynics but there's nothing for me to personally relate to.

And since there are so many other fine filmmakers out there, they don't need my admiration.

People seems surprised how well True Grit is doing at the box office but I always thought this would be a film that would appeal to families since it has a young heroine. Plus maybe the biblical allusions play well in the heartland.

Damian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Damian said...

Excellent piece, Nat. Articulate and astute. I think you've hit on the very reason why many people (including my wife) don't really care for the Coens' films. There is definitely an "artifical" feel to their work that is a direct result of their extreme meticulousness and in a time when most movies are intent on hiding their artifice, this can certainly be off-putting to audiences and make it difficult to connect emotionally with what they're seeing onscreen. It just doesn't "feel" real. The people don't feel like real human beings and the events don't feel natural and/or spontaneous. Consequently, there is lack of human warmth (or some people say "soul") to the proceedings.

While I am not prepared to agree that their films lack soul or humanity, I can certainly acknowledge that there is a kind of "coldness" and tangible calculation to their films. Interestingly, this is the very reason I love the Coens' films. Although I do have a tremendous affection/appreciation for the art of "invisible" flmmaking (a long-standing and cherished tradition in Hollywood especially), I also like that there are still some filmmakers that are not only willing to admit that there is an artifice to the whole enterprise but to embrace it. The Coens are nothing if not post-modern and want people to realize while they are watching a movie that they are watching a movie. Maybe this makes them as one critic pointed out, more "meta-filmmakers" than filmmakers, but I find the approach refreshing and is the reason why I like--and many other people don't like--Stanley Kubrick (an admitted influence on the Coens). No one can ever accuse Kubrick's films of being "warm" or "too human" or "not artificial", but that doesn't mean they're not still great in their own way.

Incidentally, I also saw TRUE GRIT a second time this week and my affection for it only increased.

Michael said...

I still have to see this one. I keep seeing John Wayne where Jeff Bridges is, and it worries me. But this sounds like a B/B+ movie AND it's the Coen Bros., so it seems promising.

NATHANIEL R said...

Damian -thanks. I don't mean to imply, mind you, that I personally don't like stylized mannered filmmaking. i kind of do... like with muchness. I just feel it's sometimes not what a movie needs and I had some issues with it here. But mostly I just think the pacing is very strange for this one and the lack of warmth to the film and the absence of nuance from the performances (though JA is right that Damon at least is working a bit of backstory into his performance) is preventing it from being a GREAT film. So it's minor Coen Bros for me.

I'm weirded out that people are acting like it's FARGO. you know?

OtherRobert said...

I have broken the code as to the Supporting Actress nominations.

You see, Hailee Steinfeld is supporting the entire film. She's supporting Damon and Bridges and Brolin and everyone else she crosses. She's supporting the narrative and cinematography and stunt scenes and even the horses. If only there was a more apt term for that kind of role. Perhaps, one day, these awards bodies will have a Best Leading category for such large, important, and impossible to eliminate without collapsing the film performances.

Alas, it just doesn't exist yet, for if it did, anyone who witnessed this picture would know the young leading lady could not be described as supporting anything but the entirety of the film.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

Having now seen True Grit, I'm now horrified by the notion of Hailee Steinfeld winning best supporting actress. It's a good performance (though you definitely catch her "acting" sometimes), but the category fraud, who she'll kick out (Jacki Weaver) and the fact that she could very well win if she gets nominated makes me unable to support a nod for her in supporting.

I'm curious what people are thinking about that category in terms of win. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if Helena Bonham Carter just starts winning precursors and becomes the safe bet, almost like Rachel Weisz did. Not to besmirch Weisz's Constant Gardener performance by mentioning it alongside Carter on autopilot, but I just mean that no one expected Weisz to win the Globe and the SAG and suddenly become the frontrunner. Also, if The King's Speech gets a bunch of nominations and starts looking good for only one win, people might want to reward it somewhere else. Horrifying, I know, but stranger things have happened and worse performances have won in this category, as we well know.

NATHANIEL R said...

pretentious -- i just can't deal with the Steinfeld thing. for the reasons you state. am ashamed of the OFCS for going there but what can you do?

as y'all know i wasn't that won over the first time through though i thought she was "good" (not that "good" should ever get nominations) and I really did keep an open mind the second time through. For instance, Jeff Bridges... I really underappreciated him the first time through thinking "oh he's just repeating the crazy heart thing." but it wasn't that at all.

but alas... the little girl will clobber the veterans who poured their craft into their roles. so sad.

Volvagia said...

I wouldn't actually use the word "cynic" to refer to the Coens. Cynic, for me, means "a person who primarily attacks those who have power." So, for example, Jon Stewart is a clear cynic. The Coens, on the other hand, are, at most positive (RA, tBL), objective, but are usually nihilistic (F, aSM, NCfOM, tL), and at their most negative (BAR, MC, BF) they are, frankly, utterly misanthropic. Cynic and misanthrope are two words. I give them two meanings. Cynicism is healthy and in the right doses is likely the most mature way to look at the news. Misanthropy on the other hand is immature, and if I were to identify the main hurdle for an asexual coming of age story, I'd have it be misanthropy. Why? It's a rich approach for such material and I have never seen that as the "coming-of-age" issue. (Maybe it's not a film thing though. Such issues are insanely internal.)

Damian said...

Nat:

I agree that this stylized approach to filmmaking may not always fit the subject matter (if the Coen brothers ever tried to make a Holocaust movie, for example, I would probably have a problem with it), but I don't find the marriage in this film quite as incompatible as you seem to. Again, this was one of the very reasons I liked it. I knew that a Coen brothers' Western was going to be, in several senses, unlike any other Western I'd ever seen (just as their gangster is unlike any other ever seen; indeed, I think TRUE GRIT would make an interesting double feature with MILLER'S CROSSING as the former reminded me several times of the latter) and they didn't disappoint.

Also, I think disagree that there is an absence of nuance to the performances. Yes, Damon is great (as is Bridges IMO), but so is Hailee Steinfeld I think. While her character might seem one-note at first, I picked up on more subtleties to her performance the second time I saw it. The wistful, but restrained, look on her face (with the ever-so-slight watering of the eyes) as she goes through her father's belongings broke my heart the second time I watched that scene.

City_Of_Lights said...

I just saw the film yesterday so the movie is fresh on my mind. I have seen the John Wayne version as well and this one is as I told a friend who hadn't, an artistic, cynical, modernly funny retelling. The ending is so empty. But then you have a good performance from a child actor unlike the original. You can keep flip flopping on either side as to why one is better than the other. I wanted to see what the Coen Bros left out of the ending (not going to give anything away) but then it wouldn't have fit the rest of the film. Elmer Bernstein vs. Carter Burwell. On and on. I'm not a John Wayne fan but I like both versions. I used to have an allergy to Wayne films after we saw The Green Berets in a history through film class. But I'd highly recommend his True Grit, Red River (it really is good Nat isn't it), The Quiet Man (for Maureen O'Hara) and El Dorado...a western that is very funny in a buddy comedy formula.

Ian C. said...

I'm actually really surprised TG is doing so well...I went to an early screening and would've placed bets (even based on the reaction of the crowd I saw it with) that TG would go down as the Nine/Lovely Bones of this year. Granted, it's nowhere near as awful as Lovely Bones, but I just thought most people would be really bored by it. I was with it for about 2/3 of the way through, but I thought it's main problem was gonna be that, on one hand, it's still too weird and Coen-y to appeal to a wide audience, and on the other, it gets too sappy and Eastwood-y to really be embraced by Coen fans.

Guess I was wrong...

And to me, Brolin still gives one of the most bizarre (in a bad, non-Juliette Lewis kind of way), almost movie-ruinous performances of the year (the point at which he showed up was when I totally zoned out)

MRRIPLEY said...

Still no joy at home base filmexperience.

cal roth said...

Allergic to John Wayne? Intervention!

Daryn G said...

I haven't seen True Grit yet, though I plan to. But I wanted to comment on Red River: I HATE this movie, even though I consider Howard Hawks a great director and have liked (somewhat) John Wayne in other movies, like The Searchers and The Shootist. Montgomery Clift is fine, the problem is that you are supposed to see Wayne's character as a difficult man who nevertheless has a lot of hard-won wisdom and is therefore morally superior to Clift and all the younger men. When really he's just a big jerk and a fool who nearly gets everyone killed because he can't intellectually grasp anything beyond the old adage "seeing is believing." He also believes he has the right to kill or torture anyone who questions his authority.

Janice said...

Nat, I began reading your review, read "mannered" etc and immediately thought of my least favorite Coens film thus far (granted I haven't seen all of them) "The Man Who Wasn't There". That was $8 and two hours of my life I'll never get back. So I think I'll pass on this one for the moment.

Thank you for an incisive review. Isn't there a film every year (at least one) at awards time where I find myself scratching my head and wondering "what is the fuss all about?" Part of the problem is that nominations and "buzz" are thrown at films based on some sort of pre-release hype, rather than the actual quality of a film that has been released and "proven" itself.

Kevin said...

Huh. Strange, I totally disagree. True Grit was my #5 of the year, and I think it's quite well-done. I find all the performances (with the exception of Brolin's, which is truly quite awful) very, very good, and all of them placed in my picks as well (Steinfeld scored 4th in Actress, Bridges 5th in Actor, and Damon tied for 5th in Supp. Actor). I guess it was a movie with a lot to like and that added up to love for me.

Deus Ex Machina said...

It was a magnificent movie experience, with some panoramic shots that would make Akira Kurosawa proud. It was as if I was watching a western in a drive in in the 50’s. Suddenly I felt nostalgic for a genre I seldom visit and I think it was because of the skill with which the material was handled. Hailee Stanfield was Laura Ingalls with pistols, c’mon, how can you not like that?!

Anonymous said...

Erk. You're usually so good with spoilers, but now it's ruined. Thanks a lot. Some countries haven't even go it yet.

Alfred Soto said...

Damon's performance was one of his best; he hasn't ever demonstrated this finesse (playing a prig without winking at the audience).

Bridges was actually the least attractive performer. In many ways this version is superior to the original, except for Bridges' performance.

NATHANIEL R said...

anon -- i'm confused. I only told the plot set up (first 20 minutes) and referred to the "night time race" at the end but not why they're racing or anything. how is that a SPOILER? unless you mean that it leaps ahead 25 years at the end. But i don't really think of that as a spoiler. [/SPOILER]

Suzanne said...

Warmth. Yes. That's what's missing. I kept calling it "the emotional arc," as I have seen the John Wayne version and all three major characters have a definite emotional arc -- there is a warmth most definitely to that film.

I spent a moment wondering if a highly stylized film could HAVE the required emotional arc or warmth. Then I remembered I Am Love.

Agree with Ian about Josh Brolin.

NATHANIEL R said...

mrripley -- i've located the problem. Hopefully it'll be fixed soon.

ian -- i love the "non-juliette lewis" bit haha

cici said...

I don't know, why does True Grit need "warmth" to qualify as great? Because it has comedic moments and a sassy young girl character? I kind of like to think of it as a companion piece to "No Country". A lot of people have been calling this movie as the Coen Bros' first foray into mainstream feel-good, but I don't think they ever intended to make a fuzzy, warm, feel-good movie. "True Grit" is still a meditation on revenge, and its title refers to, above all, the particular dispositions of people like Mattie and Rooster. They're decent and morally upright and not without kindness, but they are not warm or or even preternaturally tender. Steinfeld almost makes Mattie too likeable, because at heart, she and Rooster are the same - stoic, inexorable, and self-assured loners. The "true grit" they possess also naturally isolates them from other people, so I don't think they lack emotional depth anymore than say, Mark Zuckerberg does in The Social Network. The only difference is Zuckerberg's sadsack regretful ending, which was one I hated and thought betrayed the entire character they'd been beautifully building up to that point. Mattie has no regrets, despite a similar emotional isolation and actual handicap, and because of that, she's "empty"?

In retrospect, it would have been odd for the Coen Bros to let a movie where people (cartoonish as they may be) shot in cold blood end all happy-go-lucky. O Brother Where Art Thou is a film about family, and I admit I love that one better. But I disagree with others who found this movie off the mark.

cici said...

Bleghr. Entered the comment too soon by accident. So what I mean to say is, the ending to TSN is still pretty kickass thanks to the music, blurbs, and final shot of Eisenberg's face, but in a way True Grit's ending is more emotionally genuine since it actually makes the audience feel the hard emptiness of Mattie's choices instead of enforcing the false sentimentality of Zuckerberg's. Both movies have odd reversals.

NATHANIEL R said...

cici -- really interesting comment actually. I shall think on it. i really do like True Grit's ending.

AnthonyDC said...

I'll echo what most others have said... Damon ran great with the role, Bridges was on the top of his game, and Hailee has a lead role.

Though there was a certain Coen archness to it, I thought it began and ended with a pair of typically un-Coen-like scenes: Mattie looking over the tools, and the aforementioned night ride. Those bookends, along with precociousness of the child role, mentally softened what would otherwise be a typical "cold" Coen film in the vein of "The Man Who Wasn't There." I liked "Man," but "Grit" fires on more cylinders and has more resonance.

And I did not get Josh Brolin at all in the movie. He was heavily overshadowed by Barry Pepper, who luckily shared most of the scenes with him.

Jonathon said...

Hailee Steinfeld.....*breaks pencil* Why do I hate her so?

Anonymous said...

I looked away from the last paragraph just in time to miss some of the spoilers, like the time leap at the end.

Alfred Soto said...

It's fairly obvious that Mattie grows up to be a sanctimonious terror.

Anonymous said...

I agree, not that Brolin was bad or anything, he just came off as a "half-wit" as Mattie previously described him. Why Barry Pepper couldn't have been Chaney instead.....in his first minute onscreen, I felt everyone's interest shift from Chaney to Ned. My mom, who I brought for her seasonal film-airing, was perturbed by the overshadowing of Pepper's screen presence and whispered, "that one's Tom Chaney, right?" and pointed to Barry Pepper. I think I'll go IMDB him now.

billybil said...

Thanks for adding some perspective on this movie. I was disappointed and actually BORED during some of the rambling dialogue while riding through the trees. There are gorgeous visual moments and I do think Jeff Bridges absolutely nails it - I really wasn't expecting to like him as much as I do in this role - he's great! And Matt Damon is just so sexy - I wish he'd do more love scenes - I really wanted him to steal that kiss from Hailee. She was fine - VERY pretty, wonderfully strong in a charming way, but I agree - certainly nothing to write home about as an actress - not yet, anyway. I was so disappointed to be disappointed. But what about that shot toward the end looking back at the horse on the ground in the field. God was that gorgeous!

Danielle said...

I could not agree with you more about Steinfeld and Bridges' performances. I don't get the praise for the former - she seemed too still and too self-conscious (and you summed up her line delivery perfectly - it really did feel more like line reading rather than an overflow of thought or a conversation with other characters). Bridges was fantastic, creating a larger-than-life character that the audience can totally fall in love with.

Danielle said...

I mean *stiff not still. :)

Marshall1 said...

Nat, I think you nailed the reasons why I don't like the movie as much as well. Thanks! What bothers me the most is the lack of emotional depth in a movie about revenge. I also think the lack of danger really doesn't help, and the performances are good, not great.

Damian Arlyn said...

Just finished viewing the old TRUE GRIT. Not bad. John Wayne is always watchable, but I respect Hailee Steinfeld's performance all the more having seen Kim Darby's Mattie Ross.

Rick said...

Saw True Grit today... love Cohen Bros., have not seen JW movie or read the book... this movie to me was just OK... I do not see the adulation for it one bit.. I think the Golden Globes got it right when no noms appeared.

Hailee did an OK job, but was "Acting" throughout... also MAIN CHARACTER ... biggest joy for me was Matt Damon's performance.

Richter Scale said...

Nat, I actually think Hailee Steinfeld was terrific in the part, and what you call Acting with a capital "A" is exactly what she had to do with this role. Mattie is a 14-year-old girl in a world run by tough men, so there's no way anyone is going to take her seriously unless she gives people a reason to, and that is what she does with every speech she delivers, every time she acts tough, this is a girl who has to put on a performance in order to get what she wants. I think you see Hailee Acting because Mattie is the one is in fact Acting, and see her in her quieter moments when she's not trying to impress anybody, then tell me if she is still Acting. That's just my take on the performance, which I loved and would love to see her get an Oscar for it. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon were both outstanding as well.

As fr the film, while I was actually pretty moved by it (the ending particularly), I do see your point about the Coens having so much control of their films. It works in Fargo and No Country for Old Men, and I think it does work here sometimes too, but I did notice some parts felt a little cold. This is the Coens first time tackling something sentimental, so it's bound to feel a little weird, but I still thought it was a terrific movie.