Thursday, December 30, 2010

Film Review #241: True Grit
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

I confess I was skeptical about the Coen Brothers’ re-make of True Grit. Based on Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, the 1969 film adaptation starred John Wayne as crusty old marshal Rooster Cogburn, and made a decidedly comedic and reassuring swerve away from Portis’ darker story-line. The Hollywood producer Hal Wallis, as it turns out, bought the screen rights to Portis’ novel from Simon & Schuster even before the novel’s publication, and apparently helped the novel’s success along by sending employees to buy up cartons of the book at bookstores known to be part of The New York Times’ best-seller list calculations. In retrospect, the 1969 film that he and Paramount released, directed by Henry Hathaway, is a little like the Wild West show that a grown-up Mattie Ross visits in 1903 at the end of the Coens’ re-make – a side-show version of wilder events served up for popular entertainment without real menace.

Now, setting the record straight, we have Mattie’s memory-inside-a-memory – that is, from the windswept, lonely hillside of her family’s private burial plot in the early years of the 20th century, the 40-year-old “cranky old maid” recalls her 1903 trip to that Wild West show to see Rooster and, as she alights from the train on her way there, she remembers the trip they made together deep into the “Indian territory” beyond Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1873 in pursuit of Tom Chaney, her father’s murderer, when she was just 14. As it turns out, older Mattie is three days’ too late – Rooster has just died – a span of time the Coens wisely do not make much of but leave to percolate along with their other Biblical references.

As Cogburn the Coens have cast Jeff Bridges, with Matt Damon as the preening bounty hunter/ex-Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, new-comer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, Barry Pepper as the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper and Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney. There is not a mediocre performance among them, and the bloom is off the rose so far as any romantic notion of frontier life goes. A world of exposition is supplied by attending to the right placement of filthy fingernails, from Dreyer’s long-ago suggestion of how bleak was Joan of Arc’s confinement right down to Mattie’s first encounter with Lucky Ned, into hands and care she falls. That young Mattie, inside the first ten minutes, attends a triple hanging and briskly agrees to share a night’s lodging with the remains – her father’s undertaker has depleted her funds by overcharging her and this is the best hospitality he offers – does prepare us for what she’ll have to take in stride later.

Despite pronouncements every few years that Westerns are dead, the genre has endured and even enjoyed resurrection, often in times of war and political conflict. Westerns, after all, are the template for our national tale – or for how we re-cast that to fit the moment’s challenges – and in the decade since 9/11 they’re back again. Portis’ novel recognizably came out of the Vietnam era. And while its first screen version rode that era’s resurgence of Westerns – the Hathaway film closely followed the release of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and preceded Robert Altman’s even darker 1971 film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (belatedly named this past week to the Library of Congress’ National Registry of Films) – not for nothing do we find John Wayne reassuring the audience that all is well.

And though we’ve waited for the Coens’ re-make longer than Mattie waited to see Rooster again, they give us two boys who torture a tied pack-mule with sharpened sticks, echoing Peckinpah’s opening scene of The Wild Bunch where some laughing kids famously set ants and a scorpion afire just to amuse themselves.

This True Grit is more Deadwood than it is Andy Devine (if you’re old enough to remember that actor’s Aw-shucks Western persona). Like David Milch’s late lamented HBO parable about how the country civilized itself with all its fissures showing, this film takes its central action out of the settled United States proper, reminding us that any sea-to-shining-sea manifest destiny was a lengthy, bloody struggle that still resurfaces. Just as Deadwood depicted an historic renegade town, the lawless “Indian territory” beyond Fort Smith is much like the tribal areas– the “ungoverned spaces” – of today’s conflicts. The same filmmakers who gave us No Country for Old Men three years ago really revisit the genre with this story of a gutsy, whip-smart girl who “earns her spurs” alright in the pursuit of justice and the payment of accounts – the be-spurred LaBoeuf himself bestows that tribute – but did she, or we as a nation, grow up to be happy?

One trait of the so-called “revisionist” Westerns released in times of turmoil has been an overt mention of the Civil War. Traumatized by the national conflict and the immense, often gruesome loss of life it entailed, the country in one sense used settling the Western frontier as a way to simply change the subject. Classic depictions of settling the West on-screen have, depending on the decade and the degree of national consensus, followed suit. Westerns since 9/11 tend, as I have written elsewhere, like the Westerns of the late 60s and 70s, to reject the timelessness of classic Westerns in several ways. They often specifically give us characters with back-stories in the Civil War and who carry that conflict into the frontier. Very early, Cogburn and LaBoeuf clash over this history, though both are former Confederates. The Texas Ranger, after establishing his own credentials as an officer of a Virginia company – implying he was once a gentleman too – accuses Cogburn, who rode with the guerilla force Quantrill’s Raiders, of being a barbaric “marauder” who murdered women and children. Cogburn hotly denies such behavior, but to the end of his life maintains and takes refuge in those ties. Mattie’s visit to the Wild West show leads her to two of Cogburn’s cohorts there: Cole Younger (one of the Younger Brothers who rode with outlaw Jesse James) and Frank James (Jesse’s surviving brother), all of whose associations date from Quantrill’s Raiders. Mattie’s parting remark to Frank James – “You can keep your seat, trash!” – on the surface answers his discourtesy in not standing to speak with a lady. But it’s also about her judgment of his crass betrayal of Jesse, whose grave, history buffs will know, Frank charged money for tourists to visit.

Finally, one of the joys here is the cadenced, vivid and sometimes witty language, with much of the dialogue coming verbatim from Portis’ novel. That bracing speech itself comments on how the frontier was settled. It’s not just that the King James Bible and Shakespeare were the two most familiar books on that frontier – and both available by performance from the pulpit or the traveling stage to those who couldn’t read. Listen to the back and forth between Mattie and the stable owner when she comes to settle her father’s accounts over his string of ponies, his missing gray saddle horse and the saddle itself. Or to Mattie’s explanation in the crude mountain lean-to to Cogburn and LaBoeuf of the difference between natural law and man’s law – she pauses to translate the Latin term for them – or indeed to any of the rapid-fire exchanges in the film. What anchors these exchanges is the language’s precision and rhythmic delivery. It’s not exactly iambic pentameter, of course, but it reminds you of what Shakespeare sounds like on stage; at times you glimpse how the language itself is a civilizing, ordering force in both thought and behavior. And Mattie actually does know her place and its precariousness (“That is a silly question,” she chastises Cogburn at one point, reminding him, “I am fourteen years old.”). In a moment when Orwellian double-speak has returned to much public conversation, the Coens give us a film whose language is anything but vague or accidental.

After True Grit, I quickly took myself to see The King’s Speech too, a moving and gorgeously acted film, also about the role of language in a nation’s survival during crisis. And I highly recommend it. But I think True Grit is a better, and for us yanks, more important film. It just might be the best this year.

A shorter version of this review appears in the December 30, 2010 print edition of “The Eagle” weekly and the full review at