Wednesday, December 29, 2010

TRUE GRIT. My memory of the 1969 original is faint, but you can see some of its playing style in this old trailer. John Wayne is kind of doing Wallace Beery, and everyone else is taking an old-fashioned comedy-Western approach.

The Coens' version is, as you might expect, in the modern Deadwood manner: Formal but lethal. Their Old West is a cruel if mannerly place where even grandma will steal the blanket from you, and justice is something you only get if you're more fiercely devoted to it than most men are to their lives.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is that devoted. She wants the man who killed her father brought to justice, and wants it badly enough that she will push, cajole, and (in her ornery way) seduce two hard men to abet her. That doesn't mean they wouldn't have done it anyway (one of them was already on the case when she got there, the other is up for it if the funds are right), but her interests are significantly different from theirs.

While finances are of course imperative, the Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) and the Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) are really on the hunt for honor: La Boeuf because he is, by God, a Texas Ranger, and will have his man; Cogburn because he is, by God, Cogburn, and likewise. Tracking's their job. From this comes the grand joke of their constant bickering: Though they seem to have much in common, each is so implacably devoted to his own code that they'll argue out of personal pride, and even over whether a Ranger really will drink muddy water from a hoofprint ("Oh, I believed it the first 25 times I heard it…").

But Mattie alone is devoted to justice. She expects, for example, that they will bury a felled outlaw because Cogburn promised the man as he lay dying that he would. But Cogburn brushes it off: "Ground's too hard." When she insists that the killer be brought to justice on her terms, Cogburn tells her -- rather kindly, for him -- that in this world you can't have every little thing.

Mattie never accepts that. She is singular in both manner and mission, and her steady, urgent voiceover isolates her further. The Coens start the show with a Bible quote, and I surmise (for where else?) that the Bible is where Mattie gets her determination. No one in the picture will accommodate her vision, but she insists upon it, wins her chance at it through unearthly determination, and in the end (rather, near the end) gets it.

[Here, I warn, are some very severe spoilers.]

Once she's fought her way onto the trail, Mattie is left mostly an observer of the grisly action, until suddenly she finally gets her chance to administer justice by her own hand. In doing so she is propelled, or more literally repelled, into a pit of snakes and an amazing coda that I believe the Coens made the whole movie to achieve.

Once Mattie is snakebit, things change rapidly. Cogburn's kindness toward her turns to heroism, and he rides her on her cherished horse Blackie toward salvation. The whole picture looks great (the wonderful Roger Deakins is DP) but on that ride the visuals turn to magic. The Indian territory that had been familiar becomes ghostly, the dead trees rising like phantom snakes; the horse sweats, falters, and is sacrificed; Cogburn goes beyond his duty, and what we would imagine his capacity, to carry Mattie within sight of an ember of civilization.

The Coens, gently evoking John Ford, will not show Cogburn entering that promised land.

We go suddenly forward to when Mattie is about 40, missing an arm from that long-ago adventure. (She is shown erect, impeccable in dress and bearing, her sleeve sewn carefully up.) She has come some distance to see Cogburn, who had sent her a letter (perhaps the only one he ever sent and, she notes, badly spelled), bottom-billed in a Wild West show. At the fairgrounds Mattie is told Cogburn died shortly before. She responds with, under the circumstances, monumentally correct behavior, then harshly insults a man who did her the dishonor of not rising in her presence. And she does Cogburn the honor of removing his body to her ancestral burying place.

Over his grave, she recalls in voiceover La Boeuf, who showed some interest in her all those years ago and from whom she never heard after her amputation; he must be over 60, she recalls, probably closer to 70, and, her still-level voice declares, "time must have taken some of the starch out of his cowlick." She has never married.

Well, I warned you there were spoilers. But I had to indulge them because, though I enjoyed the movie, my memory could dispense with everything from it but the ending. The Coens give fair play to all their characters, but the fate of Mattie -- a girl who never wavered in her resolve, and lived with its hard consequence -- is a glorious movie unto itself.

I need hardly comment upon the acting, which has been elsewhere justly celebrated, except to say that young Miss Steinfeld may or may not be good at it, but she is earnest and comfortable in the company of great actors, and that's no small thing. I must add that Elizabeth Marvel, whose acting I have had the great privilege of seeing onstage, is sublime as the older Mattie, and that it is a shame she has not had more attention for her brief but searing performance.

ADDENDUM. I have written about the Coens' work before here, here, here, and here.

UPDATE. Glenn Kenny has some smart things to say in comments, and an astute review of True Grit here.

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