Friday, December 31, 2010

Coens Stay True to Heart and Soul of 'True Grit'

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) are unlikely allies on the trail of a killer in the 2010 adaptation of "True Grit." Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

WHEN Yours Truly learned that Ethan and Joel Coen were behind a second adaptation of “True Grit,” I almost dropped a 10-pound weight on my right foot. I don’t normally carry weights around; I was at the gym when I heard it on the tele.

Immediately and inexplicably, I was filled with dread. A huge fan of westerns, am I. “True Grit” I circa 1969, starring John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell, is one of my all-time favorites. It and the Coens’ version are based on the classic American novel of the same name by the reclusive Charles Portis. The novel chronicles the odyssey of determined and precocious 14-year-old Mattie Ross who hires crusty, weathered U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to bring the killer of her beloved father to justice. They would be joined in the pursuit by the loquacious Texas Ranger, only identified as LaBoeuf, who is after the same man for another murder.

Rooster Cogburn, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and Mattie Ross prove to each other that each has true grit.

“True Grit” I aired last week on TCM – no doubt so movie buffs could compare it with Version Coen, which opened nationwide on 22 Dec. just in time for Christmas. Comparisons are inevitable. (See video:

Reservations about the Coen Brothers were born of what I am not certain. After all, I am a fan of their entire body of public work. My favorite is “Miller’s Crossing,” which they handled with both whimsy and seriousness. They have a reputation for telling authentic stories, albeit with elements of surrealism and subversion. Perhaps, it is owing to these latter and the fact that, heretofore, they had not done a western. I was convinced the brothers would visit a grave injustice upon “True Grit.” Therefore, I was bitterly disappointed in advance. While I had no desire to see what I presumed would be carnage of the worst order, I also could not not see the film.

After a hard day's ride, Mattie and Rooster keep the night chill at bay around a campfire.

How misplaced were my fears! From the start worries were allayed. Now, I simply began to breathe, burrowed myself farther into my cushiony seat and enjoyed the film. Clearly, moviegoers are enjoying it, too. As of 29 Dec., “True Grit” has grossed $55.6 million. It opened in second place during Christmas weekend behind “Little Fockers” with a take of $24.8 million. Partial credit for this success has to go to the Coens, who not only directed and produced, but are responsible for the screenplay. They are pretty faithful to the book, whereas Marguerite Roberts took a few more liberties with "True Grit" I.

Jeff Bridges is like a fine wine, improving with each passing year. How delightful it was last year to see him bask in all of the accolades and honors for his role as Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart.” He won a well-deserved Oscar. It would not come as a surprise if he is nominated for an Oscar as Rooster Cogburn – a role for which the Duke took home his only statue. He is just as crusty, stubborn, lovable and capable as was JW, yet his performance is not derivative. He captures the spirit of the man while also making the role his own. Further, the chemistry with newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie is just as strong as was JW's with KD.

Mattie watches in anticipation as LaBoeuf takes a shot at some outlaws.

Matt Damon is the biggest surprise. It was not at all clear that this man from Massachusetts would be able to pull off a credible Texas accent. He does a fine job and delivers the lines in the proper cadence. He so envelops the role that on occasion it seems that he is Glen Campbell. In fact, a look into his eyes reveals a dead ringer for GC. MD’s Texas Ranger, though, is both a little more pretentious and pedantic as well as more witty than GC’s. The latter’s interpretation of LaBoeuf is more brooding and defensive. At the time he was cast, GC also had less acting experience than MD. In fact, it was his first major film role, whereas MD is accomplished at his craft.

The most crucial role in “True Grit” is that of Mattie, of course. The casting department spent months and saw thousands of girls before unearthing the jewel right under their noses in Los Angeles. It is only because this is HS’s first film and she is a relative unknown that she did not get a credit above the title. Like KD before her, she effortlessly conveys the innocence and fastidiousness of Mattie. She, too, has true grit. Regardless how full of bravery and bravado she is, though, Mattie is a mere girl who circa 1870s in a very uncivilized America journeys into bad country in pursuit of a worse man. She has experiences most won't have in their lifetime. She bears them all with – well – true grit. Where others may have swooned or fainted she maintains her composure in the face of unadulterated terror.

One can almost smell the fear emanating from her in the scene in the log cabin. Rooster kills a man for shooting his already wounded partner whom Rooster will later have to mercy kill. Mattie displays the same steely composure when she is taken hostage by Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang. Alas, there are instances when that wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder becomes a little one-note. A few different facial expressions or ticks to capture her fright would have done nicely.

"Afeared" she may be, Mattie stands up to Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).

The film loses a bit of its grit on other occasions, too. An early scene is of Rooster in court defending his heavy-handed actions in the name of the law. It is funny but it goes on too long. Elsewhere, the end is true to the novel, yet it feels like a last-minute, ill-advised addition. At the beginning, an older Mattie in a voiceover recounts briefly that this is a flashback, then the film begins. After Rooster gets Mattie help for the potentially fatal snakebite on her hand, the actions switches to the present.

An older, one-armed Maggie (Elizabeth Marvel) – now a spinster – is on a train to see her old pal, Rooster, who is plying his trade in a Wild West show. He dies a few days before she arrives. Until now the audience has not clapped eyes on this woman; she bears no resemblance in looks or manner to the spirited teen. It is a very brief appearance. “True Grit” I ends in true Hollywood style with Rooster as spry as a young buck riding off into the proverbial sunset with his spry new horse. Today's audiences don't expect this from “True Grit II, but a few more liberties could have been taken with the end. As is, it is the one major flaw in an otherwise good film.

“True Grit” is one of the best modern westerns - in company with two other remakes/updates, “3:10 to Yuma” and “Tombstone.” It deserves such praise in part because of the language - another place where the Coens are faithful to the novel. The language is beautiful because it is crafted from commonplace words; often subjects and verbs are inverted. Also, there's such exquisite speech taking place in ugly circumstances and in ordinary matters. When one morning Mattie asks after LaBoeuf who has gone away to wash or to go, Rooster informs her that he is "taking care of his necessary."

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed Mattie's father, faces his young nemesis for a second time.

There are many hilarious moments, too, as when LaBoeuf needles Rooster during the latter’s drunken target practice. “I thought you were gonna say the sun was in your eyes. That is to say, your eye.”

Another star in "True Grit" is the camera. It brings the audience squarely into the frame. In one scene in particular, Mattie evades the ferryman and swims with her new horse, Little Blackie, across the river after Rooster and LaBoeuf leave her behind the first day on the trail. It is a tight shot. The camera is right down in the water with her and the horse. Will they survive the crossing? Won’t they? The audience sees that this is a difficult, treacherous crossing, hence the ferryman. It is also obvious that the short journey is arduous for both girl and horse. In “True Grit” I in this same scene, a wider-lensed camera it used; it is at their back, offering a panoramic view. The camera is aloof. The danger is not apparent. In fact, it seems that such a crossing is routine.

Credit another pleasure of watching this latest “True Grit” to technological advances. The picture is so clear that grooves in wood are visible; detectable is the plaid on Mattie’s coat, as well as the dirt and debris on Rooster’s well-worn hat.

So defined is everything that the grit is true.

"True Grit" is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence, including disturbing images.

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