Monday, December 27, 2010

Love: True Grit


The Coen Brothers are two of the greatest storytellers of the past and current centuries, and True Grit, their adaption of many an adaptation (although mostly the novel by Charles Portis) is a further testament to their mastery of each of the small qualities needed to do it right.

The secret of the Coens is their ability to let the story tell itself. There is little fancy camera work, little fancy lighting, and only the fanciful language of the late 19th century, pulled directly from the letters, speeches, and cadences of a time when law and order was down, but vocabulary was up. With the gentle back-light of sunlight, starlight, or firelight, their perfectly cast group of characters come out of the dust and shadows fully formed and engaging, creating an instant connection with the audience. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in the lead as Mattie Ross easily holds her own as she maneuvers the uncertain ground of Indian Territory and the untamed West (it was West then) with Jeff Bridges grumbling Cogburn and Matt Damon’s charmingly boyish Texas Ranger in tow.


The brilliant dialog certainly helps Bridges and Damon get into character, but both are incredible, Damon in particular who usually only just blurs the line between himself and the person he’s playing, but here becomes someone new. Bridges’ performance is one of the best of his career, revitalizing the played out character with new depth and feeling. Both are relaxed and easy in the roles, giving the Coens the space and ease to tell the story as it comes, allowing the viewer to luxuriate as usual in the starkly Romantic, nostalgic, and absorbing world they create.


But by the time the emotional climax comes and the elegant performances hit you as hard as the butt of Cogburn’s gun, the Coen boys lose confidence in their abilities. The steady pace of the film comes to an abrupt halt, as Mattie’s narration ties everything up in a neat bow, complete with a last shot of her silhouette as a modern, sappy country song suddenly flairs to life with the first credit. It disrupts all they built, and makes what was something extraordinary, suddenly crash back to earth, just one step above the atrocity that was the end of  Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (of course, the rest of that movie wasn't much better).

Westerns are easy to find, but hard to make right, and the Coens, with their straightforward, subtle, and eloquent style have made a work of art as American as the masterpieces of Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, and Hemingway. 

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