Sunday, December 26, 2010

Love: True Grit

I'm not amongst those who are perhaps most qualified to discuss True Grit's transition from novel to John Wayne film to Coen Brothers film.  I've read the Charles Portis book, sure, it's one of only two true to genre "western" novels I can recall opening (the other, a seventh grade requirement, was Shane), but it didn't speak to me.  To make matters worse, I haven't seen John Wayne's performance as Rooster Cogburn in 1969's True Grit or 1975's Rooster Cogburn, and will confess that this is likely for the better.  Hell, I mean, I can't even pretend to have ever had a real desire to watch either of those Hollywood semi-classics.  My grave American sacrilege is this:  I simply do not care for 'The Duke', nor do I particularly care for the old notion of the Western as a genre.  That's right. Scalp me here.  Of course, there are Westerns I've found passable and the rare ones I've truly loved, but they're usually of the Revisionist variety; the sort that sweep away Wayne's heroes and replace them with corrupt systems and dimensional, oft-villainous individuals.  So, while The Searchers gets a pass, the Wayne western is not my western and you will find no general allegiances to the '69 adaptation here.  With that out of the way,  I am free to inform you that this 2010 edition of True Grit is no John Wayne film, but also no Revisionist work.  It's a straight-played adaptation that catches all the best little facets of the novel while remaining faithfully reverent to the old genre standard.  What else?  Well, Jeff Bridges plays Rooster with a style I'd imagine John Wayne simply wasn't capable of.       
The beauty of True Grit comes from it being a simple tale of retribution told simply.  It's the story of 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl out for revenge on the hired hand who killed and robbed her father.  True Grit has always been Mattie's story, and the Coen Brothers don't forget this.  As she seeks the assistance of trigger-happy, whiskey-addled Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and finds her quest to be one shared by Texas Ranger LaBouef  (Matt Damon),  Mattie is never cast off as a misplaced bit of teenage estrogen, an anchor of childish emotional wreckage,  or an inappropriately sexualized love interest.  The Coen's managed to allow a little unknown girl to remain in control of a film otherwise containing a legendary character here portrayed by a very recent Oscar winner, and Jason Bourne.  In many ways, it's a tremendous risk to take.  Luckily,  newcomer Steinfeld admirably holds her own as the true central focus for this version of True Grit, and when she forcefully pushes her way into the good graces of the hunting party she's inadvertently assembled, she does so because she's got real grit of her own.   The chemistry here is marvelous.  Steinfeld is an immovable object; she's as rigid, domineering, precocious and tough talking as the day is long. To make up for her character's at times grating threats and strictly business attitude, Bridges and Damon must bring the humanity back to the revenge drama.  Damon seems content to sidestep the spotlight and serve his purpose as the occasionally dim Texan white knight forever belittled and engaged in idle banter by Rooster.  As Rooster, of course, Bridges brings what Wayne cannot, and that is not the Duke but the Dude.  Bridges isn't afraid to play the lone wolf occasionally for laughs.  The performance is a surprisingly layered one, balancing the grizzly vigilante Cogburn perhaps was with the foolhardy aging drunk he has become.  He's unpredictable and often as dangerously reckless as he is lovably absurd.  Bridges never tries to be Wayne.  He never allows the character to drift towards impersonation or caricature, but is instead unmistakably a product of himself.   This Cogburn is a black humored rogue with a vulnerable side, and as such the character, and all of his interactions, change in timbre to something refreshingly free of the marks of heavily treaded terrain.
The film's other star is undeniably its dialogue.  The Coen Brothers have brought a strange syntax to True Grit, and it's one that will either annoy or delight you.  Doing away with the straight-up tough talk of the Wayne western, the characters here speak in a manner that's so formal yet so loaded with wit and wisdom that there are points at which it verges on sounding remotely Shakespearean.  From it, they pinpoint True Grit in a very particular place, in a very specific time; one which is far from our own.  We don't know how real cowboys spoke, but this rewriting sounds like a pretty good one.  If you can get past the lack of contractions and insistence on drawing every sentence into an almost unnaturally un-colloquial "I do not,"  "that is not,"  "he has," "she has,"  the script is a brilliant departure from the flat machismo of the strong silent lawman.  The exchanges sparkle, adding a real literary intelligence to the simplicity of the unfolding drama.  There's a pre-Victorian sensibility here that makes sense, that feels authentic even if it's historical accuracy isn't actually founded in anything other than the merger of Charles Portis' language and the Coen's imagination.  I have to admit, at times, I found the dialogue seemed to push the viewer away.  That lack of contractions speaks to a basic reading level remembrance of things past, even when the wordplay and vocabulary is as amped up as it is here.  A line like, for example, "that is not LaBouef" conjured up Karen Brewer in Baby-Sitter's Little Sister where it most certainly wasn't intended.  There were points, for me, at which the delivery of certain lines felt stilted, and I became temporarily distracted.  This, I fear, will grow into a more permanent distraction for certain audiences; one which will prevent True Grit from being fully recognized as the vital, necessary remake it is and keep it in the eyes of many as a stagey, old Hollywood throwback.  I don't know how True Grit has been snubbed thus far in awards season, but I can't say I'm all that surprised.  True Grit's reinventions are subtle.  It doesn't reinvent the story into the dark, brutal Coen picture you might expect, but keeps it quietly dignified with its own brand of true grit.

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