Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Getting It Right #2: Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit

My issue over the years with filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen is that they hate people. Not in a misanthropic or curmudgeonly manner (I have always found misanthropes fascinating and curmudgeons amusing), but in a smug 'people are idiots' mindset. Look at pictures such as the reprehensible Fargo where every character, including the supposed heroine Marge (Frances McDormand), is treated with complete contempt because of their 'funny accent' or their 'stupid' actions (Marge doesn't even solve the crime, she stumbles across the solution by accident). The Coens are the worst sort of people-haters because, based on the evidence in several of their films, they think they're better than everybody else.

And yet, when they get it right, they have created, if not great pictures, ones where I've come away feeling amused/entertained/satisfied. Pictures like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and Miller's Crossing fall into this category for me. Most of the others are either 'god, I hate this movie' or 'yawn'. Even their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men is a bit pointless when you get right down to it. This brings me to their biggest hit in their careers: the remake of True Grit, now in theatres and this past weekend’s number one at the box office. I'd heard very good things about True Grit, so I was interested in seeing it. But people had also said wonderful things about Fargo, Barton Fink, and The Ladykillers. The picture seemed right up the 'aren't people stupid' alley that the Coens have mined over the years. It's a western, so lots of chances for: funny accents, ill-bred idiots, numb-nutted gunslingers and dumb-as-dirt cowpokes. So imagine my surprise when I came out of the theatre, well, moved (an emotion I'd never felt in any of the Coen brothers' movies).

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn
Set mostly in the 1870s, True Grit tells the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who comes to a backwater town in Arkansas to claim her murdered-father's corpse and hire a gunman to help her hunt down his killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She's directed to a drunken lawman, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Another lawman, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a self-important Texas Ranger, joins in as they head into the wilds in search of Chaney and the gang he's joined.

Let's get this out of the way right away. Jeff Bridges is good as Cogburn, but I think at times the contempt the Coens feel for people they see as their inferiors is given free reign in Bridges’ characterization. Speaking in an accent so thick it makes Christian Bale’s voice in the Batman movies sound like high English, Bridges is at first amusing and almost charming. Then around the mid-point, after a shoot out in the wilds that leaves LaBoeuf wounded, his performance becomes irritating. As his character descends into a long period of self-pity, his drunken sod routine becomes a collection of actor tics, not a performance. At that point, I feared that the Coens' worst habit would rear its ugly head yet again, but after a time, it thankfully passed. How does he compare to John Wayne who had the role in the 1969 original? It's been more than 30 years since I've seen it, but if memory serves, The Duke's turn was not topped by The Dude.

Damon as LaBoeuf is quite wonderful. He’s a peacock with over-sized spurs and an ego to boot. Yet gradually his pomposity is revealed to be a cover for self-doubt and he emerges as a decent man trying to do the right thing. James Brolin as Chaney is, thank goodness, an ill-tempered idiot, but this is not the Coens’ doing. It makes perfect sense for his character to be a clueless drifter who sees a short-sighted opportunity to grab a little cash from Mattie's dad. But naturally for someone without education or self-awareness, he has no idea what to do next. Given the era and place this picture is set, this decision makes total sense.

Hailee Steinfeld
But the complete revelation here is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. Where the heck did the Coens find her? She is frankly brilliant. Want proof? Check out a scene early in the film when she realizes she has to earn some money so she can hire Cogburn and avenge her father. Using unshakable logic and a confidence only the very young could ever get away with, she convinces a horse broker to buy back the horses her now-dead father had bought, plus more. It's a wonderful scene where a very talented new actress goes toe to toe with the seriously seasoned Dakin Matthews as the horse trader. She then proceeds to pick up the rest of the picture, tuck it under her arm and waltz off with it. She is mesmerizing and you just cannot take her eyes off her. If this is what she does with just her first major film (she was 13 when she shot it) she has a huge career ahead of her. I give her plenty of credit, but I also have to tip my (cowboy) hat to the Coens for giving her the sort of direction a young, inexperienced actress would need to make this performance so memorable. 

There are a couple of other hat tips I have to give to the Coens. One is the way they wrote “Lucky” Ned (Barry Pepper). Ned is the leader of the gang that Chaney joins. Typically in most westerns, the head bad guy is a cretin who will do anything to get what he wants. Though Pepper looks like hell, with teeth so rotted and crooked that its amazing the actor could even talk, he gives us a criminal with a moral code. Sure, he's an irredeemable baddy, but he recognizes the right and the wrong of a thing and will not let certain shenanigans happen. It's a nice touch in a small role.

And then there's the finale. No, I won't reveal it. But the film's penultimate sequence is magical, heart-racing and deeply moving. During those final moments, I thought I was watching something directed by Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi because for some reason it felt very Japanese. If the whole movie had been as good as this, True Grit would have been a masterpiece. Instead, it’s a fine piece of work from two filmmakers who have disappointed me many times in the past. But they certainly haven't here.

– David Churchill is a film critic and the author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I never thought about the Coens being people-haters, but you're right! I really enjoyed Hailee's role too; however, found her reaction to slayings hard to believe - but then - in that era perhaps she was used to people being shot right in front of her. - Serena