Monday, December 13, 2010

The Coen Brothers, Shooting Straight

The New York Times
December 12, 2010

Jeff Bridges, left, in the role originally played by John Wayne, with Matt Damon in a scene from the new version of “True Grit.” (Wilson Webb/Paramount Pictures)

IN a couple of weeks families across the land will open their local newspapers in the secular ritual of finding a Christmas Day movie that everyone can attend. This year there will be the cringe-inducing giggles of “Little Fockers,” the sci-fi splendors of the “Narnia” franchise, an animated picnic with “Yogi Bear” and “True Grit,” a western from those nice Coen boys, Joel and Ethan.

Those would be the same brothers whose dark comedies and twisted genre spoofs turned them into a fetish object for a generation of critics. The ones who created a murderers’ row of cinematic sociopaths, including Anton Chigurh, who used a coin flip to decide the fate of his victims before dispatching them with a cattle gun in the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men” from 2007. Both films are set in the West and feature vivid manhunts, but no one would ever mistake “No Country,” or any of the Coens’ other dozen or so films, for a Christmas movie.

Loping in straight and true over the horizon comes “True Grit,” a classic western about a plucky 14-year-old who heads off into Indian country flanked by lawmen to hunt her father’s killer. How classic? The last time around, in 1969, “True Grit” won a best-actor Oscar for a guy named John Wayne.

The Coens’ version brandishes wide-open adventures, grizzled hearts on the sleeve and a young heroine who is by far the biggest pistol in a film full of them. And judging by the late-in-the-year release date, the pedigree of the directors and its gilded cast — Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin — Paramount, the studio that is releasing the $35 million movie, is hoping that “True Grit” will be part of that other big gift-giving evening called the Oscars. Hollywood doesn’t revisit the western genre frequently, and does so at its peril. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” included the actors Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck but failed to find much commercial traction (although “3:10 to Yuma” did quite a bit better).

At Bubby’s restaurant in TriBeCa recently the brothers momentarily resisted the notion that they made what some might see as a feel-good movie, but finally admitted it. Sort of.

“It’s not our fault,” Ethan said. “It was based on the novel. That’s the good thing about adapting novels. You blame it on the book.”

The brothers, both of whom live in New York, arrived a few minutes apart, each worn from the last frantic weeks spent meeting the deadline of a holiday release. Joel set a motorcycle-scooter helmet down next to his brother’s bicycle helmet, but that was about the extent of the observable differences between the noggins of the movie business’s most famous two-headed director.

They made “True Grit” not as corrective to the movie featuring an eye-patched Duke wheeling around as Rooster Cogburn but because both brothers loved the book by Charles Portis that it was based on. The novel is narrated by Mattie Ross, a spinster who tells the story of her quest many years earlier to avenge her father’s murder by a no-account by the name of Tom Chaney. Her younger self stomps into the frame of the Coens’ film with a gift for language and figures, a vision of pigtailed precocity.

“She is a pill,” Ethan said, “but there is something deeply admirable about her in the book that we were drawn to.” Joel continued the thought: “We didn’t think we should mess around with what we thought was a very compelling story and character.” Ethan stepped in: “The whole Presbyterian-Protestant ethic in a 14-year-old girl was interesting to us and sounded fun.”

In “True Grit,” the Coens never let go of the fact Mattie is a child, but they don’t make her movie-cuddly either. Mattie, played by a relative newcomer named Hailee Steinfeld, uses mostly bluster and bafflement to enlist Cogburn (Mr. Bridges) and a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf (Mr. Damon) in her quest, but with dollar signs in their eyes, they sneak off without her.

She sets off after them but is temporarily thwarted when a ferryman refuses to carry her across a surging river as Cogburn and LaBoeuf watch in amusement from the other side. She heedlessly plunges into the river on her little black horse, hanging on as it struggles to the other side. The music swells as she emerges, dripping but triumphant, now a made member of the ad hoc posse. Serious fans of the Coen brothers could not be blamed for waiting for another shoe to drop, an ironic twist or the pop of a balloon. It never comes (although Rooster expresses admiration for the horse, not the girl who rode it across).

“True Grit” directors, Ethan Coen and, at right, Joel Coen. (Wilson Webb/Paramount Pictures)

Fans who have become used to walking down lurid alleys full of portent and eccentrics who seem to come swinging out of nowhere may have some trouble orienting themselves among the open country and recognizable characters in “True Grit.” The Coens and their longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins, work within visual parameters erected by John Ford, shooting a sprawling western with looming landscapes that etch the relative insignificance of the people riding across them. As in the book, the characters speak in ornate, excessively civilized ways — they make the characters on “Deadwood” seem plain-spoken in retrospect — perhaps as a bulwark against the uncivilized matters at hand.

In “True Grit” justice comes swiftly but fairly, and no one ends up dead who didn’t have it coming. It is, at bottom, an emotional, even ardent, film.

“I don’t think they thought a lot about how the film might land,” said Mr. Brolin, who plays the dimwitted Chaney. “We all enjoyed ourselves. Except Joel. I don’t think that’s his specialty. But they have no pretense, no expectation, and they do what they like. The minute that people try to pigeonhole Joel and Ethan, they will end up disappointed.”

After sitting down with Mr. Damon, the first thing the Coens asked was whether he had read the book. “I hadn’t, but from the first moment I talked to Joel and Ethan, it was all about the book,” Mr. Damon said. “Once I read it, I understood, because the language is amazing. So much of the dialogue that is in this movie is right out of the book.”

Although it’s hard not to notice Mr. Bridges’s turn as the Dude playing the Duke with a dash of Bad Blake, much of the film rests on the diminutive shoulders of Ms. Steinfeld, a 13-year-old who was plucked from 15,000 girls who turned up at casting calls or sent taped auditions.

“It was, as you can probably imagine, the source of a lot of anxiety,” Ethan said. “We were aware if the kid doesn’t work, there’s no movie.”

Joel added: “We only cast her three or four weeks before we started shooting the movie, and we had been looking for a long time. But that was a crucial, maybe the crucial aspect of making the film.”

The brothers, who co-direct their films, which include “Blood Simple,” “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo,” said that they wanted an actual teenager to play Mattie and that despite having only minor credits on her résumé, Ms. Steinfeld immediately demonstrated a mastery over the rococo dialogue.

“It was apparent from the very beginning that Hailee was going to have no problem with the language,” Joel said.

Mr. Bridges, who won a best-actor Oscar for his role last year in “Crazy Heart” and entered the pantheon of Coen antiheroes in 1998 as the Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” said he was charmed that the Coens had made a movie that families might line up for during the holiday season.

“I guess I’m hoping that everybody sees it: western fans, Coen brothers fans, movie fans,” he said. “As an actor you want to be part of something that moves people, but is not just sentimental. I think people will be surprised to see Joel and Ethan doing a movie like ‘True Grit,’ but they believed enough in the book to just let the story speak to people.”

Sitting at Bubby’s, the brothers said they were shooting the story that was on a page written by someone else, not a quirky one that was conjured in the space between them.

“It is formal in the sense that it is a straightforward presentation,” Joel said. “We weren’t trying to tune it up stylistically. When we were thinking about how to shoot the scene, the default position was more pretty, more classical.”

There are some Coenesque touches amid the western classicism. Rooster and Mattie encounter a mountain man who has been roaming the hills for a long time, perhaps too long, and seems overly fond of the bear rug he wears as a coat and costume. And given that Rooster is in the habit of getting his man, usually with the assistance of a bullet, there’s a measure of retributive violence. But then again, no one is fed into a wood chipper as in “Fargo.”

“The book is quite violent, but the level of violence was a consideration for us in a way that it has not been in the past,” Ethan said, in part because the PG-13 rating will open up the movie for audiences beyond their fan base. “Some level of violence had to be in there to demonstrate the implacability of what Hattie is up against at a very young age, but compared to what you see on HBO it’s quite tame.”

Scott Rudin, who produced the film, said that its formal, reverent approach to the western, a place where quests are undertaken and adventures are had, is on the screen everywhere you look.

“I don’t think that Ethan and Joel did this movie because they felt that they wanted to reinvent the western or remake another film,” he said. “The patois of the characters, the love of language that permeates the whole film, makes it very much of a piece with their other films, but it is the least ironic in many regards.”

Joel Coen said it was apparent from the beginning that “True Grit” might land in a place where their other films had not.

“When we first approached the studio, one of the things that they wanted to know was whether we could be finished in time for Christmas,” he said. “And after a while we thought to ourselves, if we do the movie the way that we were thinking about it, positioning it as a Christmas movie does actually make sense.”

Or, as Ethan put it, “Yes, you can probably bring Grandma to this one on Christmas.”

A cover article this weekend about Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie, “True Grit,” refers imprecisely to the directing credits for their films. While the brothers have co-directed all of their movies since 1984, Ethan was not officially credited as a director until 2004, for “The Ladykillers.”


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"Coen Brothers Saddle Up a Revenge Story (or Two)"

"Film Review: 'True Grit' (1969)"

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