Saturday, January 1, 2011

TRUE GRIT, indeed. We're in good hands with the Coen Bros and their expert cast

Are there any U.S. filmmakers, main-stream variety, working at a higher level than the Coen Brothers?  I don't think so. Some time ago, to have called them mainstream would have seemed crazy (Barton Fink, anyone?), yet with each new film -- even the very serious/
hilarious A Serious Man -- their work grows clearer, more understandable, and their view of life richer and truer. TRUE GRIT is, for now, their pinnacle, maybe even their apotheosis. Their movie is so simple, direct, that you could almost miss it. Yet, as it brings together under one "roof" the brothers' many skills, it also takes the western genre to new heights, while placing movie "violence" firmly in the realm of the real and neces-sary: to be avoided if possible; if not to be handled swiftly, com-pletely. There's not a violent moment here you could call gratuitous.

When TrustMovies first heard that the brothers (that's Joel at left and Ethan, below, right) were doing a remake of True Grit, his first response was "Why?"  The original, oft-seen on TV, was a middling movie in most ways, bestowing on John Wayne an unearned Oscar. (Stack his work up against that of Dustin Hoffman or even Jon Voight, two other nominees from the competing movie Midnight Cowboy). Its source material was the over-rated, barely fleshed-out Charles Portis novel of the same name, the big draw of which was its character Mattie Ross, an older/
girl who is out to avenge her father's death. A secondary draw was the over-the-hill, sometimes drunken U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, whom Maittie hires to help her in this task. The earlier film relied on our understanding and appreciation of cliche to makes its points (helllo, Mr. Wayne!). Even Kim Darby's smart rendition of Mattie fell into this game.  The cliche's are still there in the Coen's version but they don't register as such. You barely notice them, in fact, so unremittingly real seem every word uttered and action taken. Everything here is hardscrapple -- from the lives led (and lost) to the sleeping accommodations and eating (even shitting) condi-tions. The filmmakers do not un-derscore anything. They needn't because they are content to show it all simply and easily. This new True Grit lasts 110 minutes, yet it seems a good deal shorter. No time is wasted watching the vast vistas of the west. The fine cinematography (by Roger Deakins) is even a little washed-out, as befits the parched land we see, sometimes snow-covered.

Performances are all we've come to expect from those in a Coen film, with Jeff Bridges (above left), Matt Damon (below) and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (above, right) -- who gives an even more career-making performance than did Ms Darby -- offering exactly what is needed to capture character, reality and -- yes -- the kind of movie-star charisma that keeps us hooked, but here without any of the ego-building bloat that so often accompanies this charisma.

Bridges is, of course a much better, more believable, versatile and honest actor than was Wayne (who could be fun from time to time in giving us, as ever, the expected).  But this fine actor surprises us again, disap-pearing into the character until it almost seems you can smell him (not that you'd want to get a whiff of this Rooster). Damon uses his occasional penchant for the near-prissy to initially put us off, but then spends the rest of the film drawing us to him. He's got a gift for taking any dialog and making it his own; here, that dialog is some of the best he's had in a long while. Damon, too, keeps surprising us. At this rate, he may yet become one of the more versatile actors at work in all of Hollywood.

Ms Steinfeld is the revelation here. So incredibly honest is her each moment and word that she takes what could easily slip into caricature and gives it rock-solid believability. It's an unfussy perfor-mance, too, as befits the Coens. Not a facial expression is over-drawn nor wasted. This is not Steinfeld's first role: She's done TV work and made a few short films. Her IMDB photo makes her look like any number of attractive young starlets, but leave it to the Coens to find what's special, then make the most of it -- a la Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man.

Josh Brolin (above) -- on a roll these days, after playing chief vilain in the Wall Street sequel, a comic cad in the latest Woody Allen, and hero in the under-seen but surprisingly enjoyable (for a based-on-a-comic-book movie, anyway) Jonah Hex -- proves once again memorable. His screen time is short but he makes the necessary impression. How the Coens handle the violence that surrounds this character is particularly telling, I think.

I don't remember how the original film ended, but I certainly will this one. The Coens use that fine actress Elizabeth Marvel, narrating and striding through the finale with such strength, barely-buried feeling and finesse that she suddenly, briefly, owns the film. Her encounter with two very well-known gentlemen is ripe indeed -- smart, quiet and filled with sad, troubling information that deepens what is already a fine little story.

You get up from True Grit feeling enormously satisfied. As the days pass, you'll begin to realize just what a piece of art it actually is.

No comments: