Thursday, December 23, 2010
True Grit (2010)
Back in 1999, I worked at a used bookshop in Little Rock. I was stacking books one day when Charles Portis, the author of TRUE GRIT, walked in. He was a semi-regular in our store who usually came in accompanied by Dee Brown, the elderly author of BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE. Although the ninety-year old Mr. Brown was a jovial and natural raconteur, Mr. Portis, in his sixties at the time, was always quiet and reserved. The day he came in alone he was in search of a movie guide with a good selection of Westerns. I showed him what we had and apologized for the slim pickings. "These are a little old," I said. "Might not have much new stuff in them."
He shrugged. "Aw, I don't much like the new stuff, anyway."
I wonder what he'll make of the new adaptation of his most famous novel. The book--a masterpiece of American fiction--was, of course, adapted once before by director Henry Hathaway. At the time, the film was greeted as a turning point for star John Wayne and seen as a demystification of his screen image. This was supposed to be Wayne all roughed up, not quite as heroic as we were used to seeing him. All due respect to Hathaway (a fine director whose best work is probably the noir KISS OF DEATH), the hype around TRUE GRIT was always a bit overstated. It's an entertaining film, but Wayne was only playing a slightly more eccentric version of the sexless authoritarian figures he'd been playing in Westerns since he aged out of leading man roles in the sixties.
The new film, written and directed by the invaluable Coen brothers, hews closer than the previous film to the novel in tone and plot. The story is told by a 14-year old girl named Mattie Ross from Yell county, Arkansas who strikes out to track down her father's murderer. She enlists the help of a one-eyed, whiskey-swilling federal marshal named Rooster Cogburn, and the two are joined on their journey by a loquacious Texas Ranger named La Boeuf.
The Coens haven't been completely faithful to the book--for instance, they've added a strange new sequence involving a hanged man and a fellow wearing a bear's head for a hat--but their love of Portis's novel, especially its rich language, is palpable. In most Westerns, even in most great Westerns, there's no attempt made to try and replicate the sound of speech from the 1800s. One of the pleasures of Portis's novel, however, is the way the characters--Mattie, in particular--have a speech pattern that blends rural slang and formalized speech patterns. It's at once coarser and classier than the way most of us speak now. Since one of the real gifts of the brothers Coen is their ability to mine the regional verbal gold of an ever expanding swath of America--think FARGO, RAISING ARIZONA, A SERIOUS MAN--they are especially suited to the task of bringing Portis's language to the screen. Although it takes a few minutes to get used to lack the lack of contractions, the result is a kind of distinctive rural poetry.
The film, like so much of the Coens' best work, is an ensemble piece: Jeff Bridges makes for a surly and capable Rooster Cogburn, a man whose lack of grace is made up for by his abundance of...well, grit. Matt Damon is all kinds of wonderful as the self-important La Boeuf--it's nice to see the star, so often cast as the laconic outsider, utilizing his comic chops. Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin play the kinds of bad guys we never see in movies anymore: nasty characters who are nevertheless recognizably human. And spearheading this gang of misfits is young Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. A 14-year old from California, Steinfeld seems to slip effortlessly into the skin of a preternaturally mature girl from 19th century Arkansas. More to the point, she's able to convey Mattie's essential quality, what Ethan Coen calls "the unflinching, four-square Protestant thing that defines the character." The actress is too pretty for the role, but when she sets her jaw and stares down the men of violence surrounding her, you believe her.
In the end, it's best to keep in mind that TRUE GRIT is the story of an old woman (a self-described "spinster") looking back on her moment of triumph. The smartest move the Coens make here (and they make almost exclusively good moves) is to keep the frame story in place. The film's opening shot begins as a murky haze that slowly clarifies into the image of Mattie's dead father. This is Mattie looking back through time and distance. When we rejoin her at the end of the film, she is old and malformed by her adventure, but she is who she is, the kind of headstrong character who deserves the title of "peculiar." That peculiar woman is who comes across in the pages of the novel, and that's who comes across here.
I hope Portis approves.
For more on Portis read here.