Dec 25, 2010

True Grit

I never saw the John Wayne film, as I am not a John Wayne fan, but as far as I'm concerned, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn has to be a major improvement over The Duke. Nobody does weary and weathered better than Jeff Bridges. He is an expert on  moral dissipation but not of the totally depraved kind. His Rooster Cogburn is a man who tends to state the obvious, who sounds like his saliva is 90 proof and he's happily chewing on burning coals, and who despite the laziness, the love of drink, and the moral ambivalence, harbors a ruthlessness that he conveys with an icy glare of his one visible blue eye.
The Coen Brothers' True Grit is not one of their usual genre mashups, but a bona fide Western, based not on the previous film but on the novel by Charles Portis, and they approach the genre without reverence, but with lovely symbolic weight (volumes can and probably will be written about this aspect of the film. It is very literary). True Grit is fun and action packed, but it is also a fable about death and revenge, and it is, like all Westerns worth their salt, a very enlightening take on the character of this country, which has always been held by the tension between violent anarchy and the law; between the law and actual morality; between self-righteously quoting the Bible and actually behaving according to it.
The Coens lately seem to be preoccupied with the Bible (see A Serious Man). The movie starts with a very relevant quote from Proverbs: "The wicked flee when no one pursues...", which as far as I'm concerned, relates not only to Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin), the villain of this story, but to a more recent Cheney and other contemporary evildoers who are not being pursued for their crimes. But True Grit does not advocate revenge as much as it questions it. Revenge biblical style, it turns out, is complicated. There are no easy answers.
In the true spirit of a Christmas Scrooge, I am not as wild about the talented Hailee Steinfeld as everyone is going to be. Mattie Ross is a hard role to play, a headstrong, supremely articulate 14-year old who is looking to revenge her father's murder. This girl witnesses pretty traumatic violence (a la Coen brothers' style, to boot), yet she barely breaks a sweat. True, she thinks she is going on a big adventure, she is innocent about the implications of her simplistic revenge scheme, but it would have been more convincing to see more fear or vulnerability underneath her bluster throughout the movie and not only in individual scenes. She is a fascinating character, a precociously smart girl who has had to take the reins of her family, who has an obsession with the law and thinks she can bluff her way all over the Wild West by merely mentioning it (and this place is so wild that nobody seems to even notice that she's tooling around all by herself). She instinctively knows that with no strength of her own, except for her brilliance, the threat of the law is the only big stick she can carry.
Mattie is accompanied by Bridges, who is enormously entertaining, and by Matt Damon, playing LeBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, with his usual understated panache. He gets to twirl around what sounds to me like a very convincing Texas accent, with and without a speech impediment. Westerns are usually teeming with brooding, silent men. Not this one. This may be the most garrulous (and comical) serious Western ever written. Everybody here talks a blue streak, each character not only with a different accent but with different vocabularies, as befits a Coen Brothers production. As I was watching, I wanted to get my hands on the script just to read their amazing turns of phrase (and also to elucidate some of what Cogburn was saying, because Bridges mumbles). Bless their souls, they insist on unfurling language with as much flourish as possible at a time when it is becoming more and more impoverished. And while in some of their movies this linguistic excess sometimes feels too clever by half, in True Grit it works really well, because it shows how people came together from different backgrounds to try to coalesce into a functioning society, and that they lived at a time when their speech was influenced by a strong oral tradition and by reading, not by watching TV, texting or twittering. The only people who are not allowed to speak and are silenced quite literally in the film are Native Americans and Blacks. So that nobody confuses this movie (and by extension, this nation) with Little House on the Prairie, they are treated horribly: with disturbing funny horrible slapstick, as is the Coen Brothers way.
The bulk of the story takes the pursuit of Cheney by Cogburn, Mattie, and LeBoeuf: a rite of passage into a wilderness of murder and lawlessness. A lot happens, none of it predictable, sentimental or clichéd. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is gorgeous, and so is the music by Carter Burwell. All the character actors are perfect.
But the movie jelled for me until the final act, a beautiful, meaningful turn about the consequences of believing that revenge is simple. Mattie pays dearly, and hopefully learns a lesson, for thinking so gingerly about killing.
From its origins, this country has been under the grip of the same mentality: trigger happy, too revenge oriented, shortsighted about far-reaching consequences. An eye for an eye is an ancient law that begs for evolution. An evolved law is what civilized countries should have.

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