Thursday, December 9, 2010

True Grit

The brothers Coen have ventured into unsettling, loony, and delightful madcap territory over the course of their storied 26-year-old career.  The crafty siblings typically spring their stories from their own creations, but once in a while have adapted the works of others-- very prestigious types like Homer, Cormac McCarthy and now, Chris Portis with their latest, True Grit.  A traditional type western more literally adapted, and not nearly a re-staging of the John Wayne effort in 1969, which won the actor his only Academy Award.  Trademarks of the Coen Brothers are everywhere in this wild west, starting fittingly and most gloriously with the expert participation of ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose beautiful widescreen panoramas make the film look epic, and at times, feel epic.  Of course my now, other familiar Coen elements are well-represented as well-- an interesting array of actors, an expert use of sound, well-fitted and completely appropriate costumes, and a complete sense of tone, space and mood, all well constructing; no matter the context, Joel and Ethan Coen have always been fine cinematic technicians, and with each film, the degree and level of their extraordinary craft is in itself any moviegoer with substance, its own reward.  The problem with True Grit is exactly in it's title; the film, no matter who stately and well-sculpted, lacks that integral quality.

The story, per genre requests, is a simple one-- 14-year-old Mattie Ross (played with a delicate balance of persistence and innocence by notable newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) goes on a mission to bring her father's killer to justice, be it be law or her own hand.  At her aide is renegade Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger, not to be confused with Walker, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon.)  Together they go out into Indian Territory to bring the bad guy home-- he's a man by the name of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin.)  Of course, there's a notable western transgression is the context of True Grit, by having a strong female character lead the charge, the film acknowledges this every opportunity, but what feels, at first, like the most accessible Coen Brothers film ever made, slowly turns into a movie that feels as if their trying too hard to audience acknowledgment, appreciation for pandering to the crowd.  Too many and constant winks and nudges that even though the characters are struggling with life and death, needn't the audience-- let's all just have a good ole time.

The effort feels forced and overly slapstick, far from the serious, sobering film it surely could have been.  There's moments, it feels in almost every scene, where it starts out cleverly and sputters on until it's worn out it's welcome, devolving into an emotional vacuum.  For instance, a scene of Mattie bartering with a merchant, which is meant to showcase and foreshadow her fortitude and tenacity, hums along at the start, only to become interminable-- they just keep bargaining, like a couple of pages of the script went on auto-pilot.  Many of forced, at sadly, fake conflicts of the film feel the same way-- start strong only to ware themselves out into irrelevance.  At times, True Grit feels like a parody of the film it's trying so hard to be, and even with the participation of the noblest of talent, which Jeff Bridges surely is, the film is watered down to sadly shallow vessel, where nothing feels fresh or more importantly, earned.  Bridges himself always emits the ease cool charm of good ole boy, and the actor dives into Cogburn handily and gleefully.  Part sociopath, part good natured lawman, all parts drunk, Bridges is the antithesis of the John Wayne western hero, however, even though he will always be "The Dude," there's a sad novelty to his Cogburn that's all for showboating.

Call it Coen Brothers-lite, True Grit offers nary the substance or thrills of their 2007 Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, also a western about vengeance.  That film had something to say about violent men, and the nature of their violence; True Grit offers a few shoot-outs, a bunch of carcasses, and a dismaying "whatever" reaction.  Heart may never have been one of the trademarks of Coens, but nonchalance nearly never is either.  That's partially because there's so much attempts at tremulous lighthearted-ness afoot.  The humor, neither subtle or traditional Coen Brothers playful sense of irony, falls flat because there's too much of it, and the jarring playing to the rafters sense of lets-have-some-fun is off-putting to say the least.  Never once in True Grit, and I suppose this is true in the 1969 John Wayne version as well, is there ever a real sense of danger, only a derivative path to a conclusion, I'm sure many can already guess.  The ability to surprise, typically one of the Coen Brothers best cinematic trademarks is lost here in the effort to be commercial.

I'm curious to follow the path of the film as it approaches opening day, for this being one of the very last big studio films of "prestige" to be released in 2010.  I sincerely believe it could play very well, and might end up as one of the Coen Brothers biggest moneymakers, but will that be seen as a noble accomplishment for filmmakers known for such incisive and divisive movies, or a casual sell-out.  C+

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