Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Film Reviews: 'True Grit'

Wearing Braids, Seeking Revenge

The New York Times
December 21, 2010

NYT Critics' Pick

That old-time American religion of vengeance runs like a river through “True Grit,” a comic-serious tale about some nasty, brutish times. Beautifully adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen from the parodic western novel by Charles Portis, it turns on a 14-year-old Arkansas girl who hires a “one-eyed fat man” to hunt down her father’s killer. First published in 1968, Mr. Portis’s tall tale was brought to the screen the next year custom-fitted for John Wayne, who rode the role of that fat man, Rooster Cogburn, straight to an Oscar. Now it’s the thinner scene-stealer Jeff Bridges who sits and sometimes drunkenly slumps in the saddle.

Much as he did in the raucously entertaining original film directed by Henry Hathaway, Rooster enters on his best behavior, seated in a courtroom amid a fog of cigar smoke and conspicuous lies. The pale, ghostly light comes courtesy of the Coens’ frequent cinematographer, Roger Deakins, while many of the twisty, funny sentences have been plucked by the filmmakers right from the novel. A deputy United States marshal, Rooster has attracted the interest of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, in a terrific film debut), a half-pint who, with her bloodlust and severely braided hair, is an authentic American Gothic. As she listens to Rooster recount his bloody deeds and high body count, her eyes shine with a true believer’s excitement.

Avenging her father and keeping close track of her family’s expenses are what preoccupy Mattie, a richly conceived and written eccentric, as memorable on the page as she is now on screen. Softened for the first film (in which she was played by a 21-year-old Kim Darby, in a bob), she has been toughed up again by the Coens so that she resembles the seemingly humorless if often unintentionally humorous Scripture-quoting martinet of Mr. Portis’s imagination. At times she brings to mind D. H. Lawrence’s famed formulation that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” At other times, as when she wears her dead father’s oversize coat and hat, she looks like a foolish child left to perilous play.

Those dangers are telegraphed early by the public hanging that occurs soon after the story opens. Mattie, along with a family worker, Yarnell (Roy Lee Jones), has traveled from her Yell County home to Fort Smith, Ark., to identify her father, who has been gunned down by another worker, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). After doing so, she sends Yarnell home and gets down to business, first by settling her father’s accounts. She then hires Rooster because she hears that he has “true grit,” a quality that mostly seems to entail a disregard for preserving the lives of his prisoners. It’s no wonder she watches the hanging with such avidity, and no wonder too that she takes off after Chaney, armed with Rooster and her father’s heavy gun.

Their journey leads them into Indian country (with few Indians) and increasingly tense and violent encounters featuring corpses, severed fingers and a bad, bad man (Barry Pepper, spewing fear and spittle). On occasion a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who calls himself LaBeef, joins in the search. Wearing jangling spurs and a luxurious mustache that sits on his lip like a spoiled Persian cat, LaBoeuf hopes to bag Chaney for a large reward. Dead or alive, everyone in this story — snaggletooth thief or boardinghouse owner — has a price either on his head or in mind, usually in the form of the dollars and cents one person hopes to extract from another. “Why do you think I am paying you,” Mattie asks Rooster, “if not to have my way?”

The Coens deliver that line with a touch so light you might not even notice its sting. They have been surprisingly faithful to the tone and idiomatic tang of Mr. Portis’s novel, perhaps because its worldview suits their ironic purposes. The whiskey-soaked Rooster still likes to “pull a cork,” as he does in the book, and the Coens and Mr. Bridges get into the boozy spirit of things with slurs and pratfalls.

Despite Mr. Bridges’s showy turn, the movie opens and closes with Mattie’s voice-over, which shifts the story away from Rooster and back to her. The Coens also restore the novel’s framing device: “True Grit” isn’t just the story of a gutsy 14-year-old; it is her story as called from the memory of the woman (Elizabeth Marvel) she became.

The Coens opened their last film, “A Serious Man,” about a 1960s Minneapolis professor who endures trials worthy of Job, with an enigmatic short story about a 19th-century tale involving a possible dybbuk. That story is prefaced with a quotation attributed to the medieval Jewish scholar Rashi (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”) that appears in a 19th-century comic story, “The Gilgul, or The Wandering Soul,” about a dybbuk, or restless spirit, that inhabits a person. In “True Grit” the Coens switch to Solomon, opening the film with the first half of Proverbs 28:1 (“The wicked flee when none pursueth”), a line Mattie quotes early in the novel. Like Mr. Portis, they notably omit the second line: “But the righteous are bold as a lion.”

Mr. Portis’s book hit in 1968, in the midst of a pop-cultural cycle that, partly fueled by the Vietnam war, was revisiting the cowboy myth with degrees of cynicism and nostalgia. “True Grit” sticks to the western template, but with characters who, at least initially, fall far short of the heroic ideal of the type that Wayne himself embodied for decades. Yet no matter how roguish (and laughable) in the novel, Rooster can’t help registering as a larger-than-life hero on screen because the legend who played him, by then a survivor of cancer and countercultural assaults (for the jingoistic “Green Berets”), had played his role for so long. When Wayne won best actor for “True Grit,” it was for playing John Wayne.

The first “True Grit” opened in New York in early July 1969, a week after “The Wild Bunch,” the Sam Peckinpah western that’s widely seen as a metaphor about interventionist follies like Vietnam and that remains an enduring evisceration of the genre. The Coens, who like to play with genre, often with giggles and winks, haven’t mounted an assault on the western. But in Mattie they have created a character whose single-minded pursuit of vengeance has unmistakable resonance. In the first “True Grit,” when Rooster watches Mattie cross a river on horseback, he jocularly says, “She reminds me of me.” The line isn’t in the remake, but from the long, hard look Rooster gives her now, it’s clear that she still does, for better and worse.

In classic Coen style, the brothers punctuate the image of Mattie riding to dry ground with a cutaway to a slack-jawed Rooster, his mouth agape in wonder. By the time the scene ends, the mood has switched again, and Rooster has drawn his gun on LaBoeuf in deadly seriousness. (Mr. Damon plays the designated clown with grace, as Mr. Bridges slides between buffoonery and malice.)

In some ways, much like Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter,” which the Coens quote both musically and visually, “True Grit” is a parable about good and evil. Only here, the lines between the two are so blurred as to be indistinguishable, making this a true picture of how the West was won, or — depending on your view — lost.

“True Grit” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Three severed digits and several holes to the head.


Opens on Wednesday nationwide.

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production design by Jess Gonchor; costumes by Mary Zophres; produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

WITH: Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Bruce Green (Harold Parmalee), Roy Lee Jones (Yarnell) and Elizabeth Marvel (adult Mattie).

True Grit, Odd Wit: And Fame? No, Thanks

The New York Times
December 19, 2010

A photograph of the camera-shy Charles Portis, left, with John Wayne during the filming of the first “True Grit” (1969). (Paramount Pictures)

The arrival of the Coen brothers’ movie “True Grit” on Wednesday is likely to bring Charles Portis a new surge of attention he has no use for. Mr. Portis, the author of the 1968 novel on which the new film is based (as was the 1969 John Wayne version) is allergic to fame.

He’s not a Pynchonesque recluse, exactly. He is occasionally spotted in Little Rock, Ark., where he has lived for 50-odd years; he even went to a gala sponsored there recently by the Oxford American, a literary magazine, and consented to receive a lifetime achievement award, though he sat in the 14th row, or as far from the stage as he could. But Mr. Portis doesn’t use e-mail, has an unlisted phone number, declines interview requests, including one for this article, and shuns photographs with the ardor of a fugitive in the witness protection program. He hasn’t published a novel in nearly 20 years.

The writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, who got to know Mr. Portis in the early ’60s, when he was a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune, recalled that back then he was more sociable. “Charlie was just charming, the life of the party almost,” she said. “But he was a newspaper reporter who didn’t have a phone. The Trib had to make him get one. So even back then the pattern was there.”

His elusiveness has only enhanced his status as a cult writer’s cult writer, cherished by a small but devoted following. He has published four novels besides “True Grit” (all five have recently been reissued in paperback by the Overlook Press), and for years those in the sect have been pressing them on new readers like Masons teaching the secret handshake. The journalist Ron Rosenbaum, the unofficial grand vizier and first hierophant of Portis admirers, has called him “perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America.”

“True Grit,” Mr. Portis’s second novel, which was serialized by The Saturday Evening Post and appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for 22 weeks, is actually a divisive matter among Portis admirers. There are some, like the novelist Donna Tartt, who consider it his masterpiece, a work comparable to “Huckleberry Finn.” Others, like Mr. Rosenbaum, resent “True Grit” a little for detracting attention from Mr. Portis’s lesser-known but arguably funnier books: “Norwood” (1966), “The Dog of the South” (1979), “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) and “Gringos” (1991). The writer Roy Blount Jr., an old friend of Mr. Portis’s, suggested recently that Mr. Portis himself was a little embarrassed by the success of “True Grit.”

“I think that’s why in his next book, ‘Dog of the South,’ he set himself the challenge of a funny book written by a boring narrator,” Mr. Blount said. “That’s why other writers love him so much.”

“True Grit,” the story of the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, from Yell County, Ark., who with the help of the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn sets out to avenge the murder of her father by a drunken hired man named Tom Chaney, is not unfunny. It’s simultaneously a thoroughly satisfying western and a parody of one. But unlike Mr. Portis’s other books “True Grit” is a period piece — the story takes place in 1873 but is recounted decades later, when Mattie is by her own description a cranky old spinster — and the narrative voice is a feat of historical ventriloquism.

Mattie’s prose is stiff, formal (a quality lovingly captured by the Coen brothers), a little pious and platitudinous, given to scriptural quotation and fussy quotation marks: “I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious ‘claptrap.’ My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.”

Mattie is lovable in her way, and though grit is what she admires in Rooster, she is hardly lacking in that department herself. But she is also humorless, righteous and utterly without either self-doubt or self-consciousness. She has no idea how she or her words come across on the page, nor would she care if she did.

“The Dog of the South” and “Gringos” are also written in the first person, and the two others might as well be. The voice in all them is loose and informal, even a little digressive, with a noticeable Southern quality. Mr. Portis’s friends say he talks much the same way, and to judge from “Combinations of Jacksons,” a memoir he published in The Atlantic in 1999, his nonfictional style isn’t much different from his fictional one: in both he is a great noticer, always alert to the odd but telling detail.

What the other novels have in common with “True Grit” is their deadpan quality. Most comic novels — think of anything by P. G. Wodehouse, say, or Ring Lardner — are fairly transparent: they unabashedly try to be funny and let the reader in on the joke. The trick of Mr. Portis’s books, especially the ones told in the first person, is that they pretend to be serious. They’re full of odd events and odd people with names like Norwood Pratt, Raymond Midge and Dr. Reo Symes, inventor of the underappreciated Brewster Method, a miracle cure for arthritis. But these are presented without a wink or a nudge, or any sense that slapstick touches like smooth-talking midgets, bread-fondling deliverymen or elderly gents wearing conical goatskin caps are at all unusual.

Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face. As a result there are not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments or explosive set pieces here. Instead of shooting off fireworks the books shimmer with a continuous comic glow.

Unlike the tightly plotted “True Grit,” the other books are all shaggy-dog stories of a sort. In “Norwood” (which was made into a 1970 movie starring Glen Campbell) Norwood Pratt travels all the way to New York from his home in Ralph, Tex., to collect a $70 debt and winds up engaged to a girl he meets on a Trailways bus. In “The Dog of the South” Ray Midge drives to Mexico from Little Rock in search of his wife, who has run off with her first husband and Ray’s Ford Torino. “Masters of Atlantis” is about two guys who create the Gnomon Society, an esoteric, Rosicrucian-like sect based on wisdom from the lost city of Atlantis. And in “Gringos” an American expat in Mexico falls in with some U.F.O. nuts and archeologists searching for a lost Mayan city.

But in one way or another the subtext of all these novels is the great Melvillean theme of the American weakness for secret conspiracies and arcane knowledge, and our embrace of con men, scam artists and flimflammers of every sort. In Mr. Portis’s pantheon of tricksters, moreover, writers rank pretty high. There’s John Selmer Dix, author of “With Wings as Eagles,” an inspirational manual for salesmen, whose admirers rank him higher than Shakespeare; the hack writer Dub Polton, author of “Hoosier Wizard,” a political biography that pretty much makes everything up; and Lamar Jimmerson, compiler of the Codex Pappus, the sacred Gnomon text, which deliberately includes a lot of obfuscation to “weary and disgust the reader” and put him off the track.

All these texts, you can’t help noticing, are in their way not unlike Mr. Portis’s books in the degree of devotion and enthusiasm they evoke in their readers. They’re not self-parodies but, rather, warnings about the dubiousness of reputation and about the dangers of taking the cult of authorship too seriously.

“Talking about himself is something that would feel false and strange to him,” William Whitworth, the former editor of The Atlantic and his old friend, said of Mr. Portis. “It would be like asking him to stand up and sing like Frank Sinatra, or be on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ ”

True Grit

December 21, 2010

In the Coen Brothers' “True Grit,” Jeff Bridges is not playing the John Wayne role. He's playing the Jeff Bridges role — or, more properly, the role created in the enduring novel by Charles Portis, much of whose original dialogue can be heard in this film. Bridges doesn't have the archetypal stature of the Duke. Few ever have. But he has here, I believe, an equal screen presence. We always knew we were looking at John Wayne in the original “True Grit” (1969). When we see Rooster Cogburn in this version, we're not thinking about Jeff Bridges.

Wayne wanted his tombstone to read, Feo, Fuerte y Formal (Ugly, Strong and Dignified). He was a handsome, weathered man when I met him in the 1960s and '70s, but not above a certain understandable vanity. Roo­ster might be an ornery gunslinger with an eye patch, but Wayne played him wearing a hairpiece and a corset. Jeff Bridges occupies the character like a homeless squatter. I found myself wondering how young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) could endure his body odor.

Bridges' interpretation is no doubt closer to the reality of a lawman in those years of the West. How savory can a man be when he lives in saloons and on horseback? Not all riders on the range carried a change of clothes. Of course he's a lawman with an office and a room somewhere in town, but for much of the movie, he is on a quest through inauspicious territory to find the man who murdered Mattie's father.

As told in the novel, Mattie is a plucky young teen with a gaze as level as her hat brim. She hires Marshal Cogburn to track down that villain Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She means to kill him for “what he done.” If Bridges comfortably wears the Duke's shoes, Hailee Steinfeld is more effective than Kim Darby in the earlier film, and she was pretty darn good. Steinfeld was 13 when she made the film, close to the right age. Darby was a little over 20. The story hinges on the steely resolve of a girl who has been raised in the eye-for-an eye Old West, seen some bad sights and picked up her values from the kind of old man who can go and get hisself shot.

What strikes me is that I'm describing the story and the film as if it were simply, if admirably, a good Western. That's a surprise to me, because this is a film by the Coen Brothers, and this is the first straight genre exercise in their career. It's a loving one. Their craftsmanship is a wonder. Their casting is always inspired and exact. The cinematography by Roger Deakins reminds us of the glory that was, and can still be, the Western.

But this isn't a Coen Brothers film in the sense that we usually use those words. It's not eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky. It's as if these two men, who have devised some of the most original films of our time, reached a point where they decided to coast on the sheer pleasure of good old straightforward artistry. This is like Iggy Pop singing “My Funny Valentine,” which he does very well. So let me praise it for what it is, a splendid Western. The Coens having demonstrated their mastery of many notes, including many not heard before, now show they can play in tune.

Besides, isn't Rooster Cogburn where Jeff Bridges started out 40 years ago? The first time I was aware of him was in “The Last Picture Show” (1971), where he and his friends went the local movie theater to see “Red River,” starring John Wayne. Since then, that clean-faced young man has lived and rowdied and worked his way into being able to play Rooster with a savory nastiness that Wayne could not have equaled.

All the same, the star of this show is Hailee Steinfeld, and that's appropriate. This is her story, set in motion by her, narrated by her. This is Steinfeld's first considerable role. She nails it. She sidesteps the opportunity to make Mattie adorable. Mattie doesn't live in an adorable world. Seeing the first “True Grit,” I got a little crush on Kim Darby. Seeing this one, few people would get a crush on Hailee Steinfeld. Maybe in another movie. But the way she plays it with the Coens, she's more the kind of person you'd want guarding your back.

Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper have weight and resonance in supporting roles. Damon is LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who comes along for a time to track Tom Chaney. Glen Campbell had the role earlier, and was right for the tone of that film. Damon plays it on a more ominous note. His LaBoeuf isn't sidekick material. He and Cogburn have long-standing issues. Nor, we discover, is LaBoeuf a man of simple loyalty.

As Tom Chaney, Brolin is a complete and unadulterated villain, a rattlesnake who would as soon shoot Mattie as Rooster. In the Western genre, evil can be less nuanced than in your modern movies with all their psychological insights. Barry Pepper plays Lucky Ned Pepper, leader of a gang Chaney ends up with, and part of the four-man charge across the meadow into Rooster's gunfire, a charge as lucky for them as the Charge of the Light Brigade.

The 1969 film, directed by Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway, had glorious landscapes. The meadow and several other scenes were set in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, near Telluride. This film's landscapes are all in Texas, and although some are beautiful, many are as harsh and threatening as the badlands described by Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry.

I expect Bridges and Stein­feld have good chances of winning Oscar nominations for this film. Steinfeld is good the whole way through, but the scene audiences love is the one where she bargains with a horse trader (Dakin Matthews) for the money she feels is owed her. Here the key is the dialogue by the Coens, which never strains, indeed remains flat and common sense, as Mattie reasons the thief out of his money by seeming to employ his own logic.

I'm surprised the Coens made this film, so unlike their other work, except in quality. Instead of saying that now I hope they get back to making “Coen Brothers films,” I'm inclined to speculate on what other genres they might approach in this spirit. What about the musical? “Oklahoma!” is ready to be remade.

No comments: