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True Grit (2010)

Going South

I’m not qualified to talk about Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit as a remake of the classic John Wayne film.  I haven’t seen it.  But that’s okay, because the Coens have presented their version as an adaptation of John Portis’ novel—which I haven’t read.

On its own merit, True Grit is a lousy movie; as a Coen Brothers movie, it’s inexcusable.  Three years ago, they adapted Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men as a work of violent poetry and macho existentialism.  That film was intense, surprising, and superbly acted, and it modernized the idea of the western.  True Grit is flat and amateurish all around, and plays like the top film in an alternate universe where Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were never born.

The film stars Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a thirteen-year-old girl whose father was killed in a drunken rage by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a drifter whom he’d paid to help with some horses.  Mattie leaves her mother and siblings behind to see the remains safely delivered back home; she also hires an alcoholic U.S. Marshal named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Chaney and deliver him to justice.  Also on Chaney’s trail is a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who pops in and out of Mattie and Cogburn’s mission—usually getting himself in trouble more than actually helping.

Mattie and Cogburn (and sometimes LaBoeuf) saddle up and head into Indian territory, where they believe Chaney has teamed with a small band of outlaws led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).  They find him; there’s a kidnapping and a lot of shooting; the bad guys die and Mattie is nearly killed by a snake bite.  That’s all that really happens in True Grit, and it takes almost an hour and a half for the action to kick into high gear.  The lead-up to the encounter with Pepper’s gang is a series of long conversations broken up by the occasional horse-riding scene and lots of tired, tired, tired banter between LaBoeuf and Cogburn about whose law-enforcement dick is the biggest.

I have no problem with “talky” films.  In fact, my favorite movie of last year was the Coens’ A Serious Man, which was all dialogue concerning the lives of 1960s suburban Jews.  The fact that I didn’t know anything about being a 1960s suburban Jew had no negative impact on my enjoyment of the movie because the characters were lively and the story was accessible and interesting.  The new True Grit is predictable, through-and-through, and none of the characters rise above being archetypes.

A lot of that has to do with the dialogue.  I’m reminded, once again, of Harrison Ford’s jab at George Lucas during the filming of Star Wars, “You can write this shit, but you can’t say it.”  All of True Grit is written in a buttoned-up formality that is undone by the actors’ attempts to act while saying their ridiculous lines.  There’s too much “I declare”, and too few contractions; after awhile, I felt like I was watching a gaggle of Vulcans in period costume reciting 19th century law.  I never got the impression that I was watching characters speak as they really would have spoken, but rather the way in which people assume characters spoke in old western movies.  The closest comparison I can draw is to Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet, which put the words of William Shakespeare into the mouths of hip, gun-toting teenagers.  That’s a movie you don’t watch for the dialogue because A) it’s nearly impossible to understand in the rapid-fire delivery of modern youth and B) the action tells the story well enough that even with the sound off the audience gets what’s going on.  If you were to watch True Grit with the sound off, you’d be just as likely to mistake it for a story about getting permits to open a saloon as you would a revenge thriller.

Which brings me to the film’s second major problem.  For much of the run-time, our heroes are in pursuit of the big, bad Tom Chaney.  LaBoeuf talks about his previous crimes, including the murder of a Texas state senator, and how it’s tricky for even just two men to try and take him alive.  Chaney is painted as a ruthless super-villain; so when we finally meet him and discover that he’s a just a dirty half-wit with an underbite the air is completely sucked out of the rest of the story.  The cliché that a movie is only as good as its antagonist is especially true here.  I guess the message is that Chaney is dangerous because he’s dumb and mean, but as a force to be reckoned with, he may be the lamest outlaw in the history of westerns.  I loved the scene where he and Mattie first meet; it’s awkward and kind of comedic, and is underscored by a sense of menace; I thought it was brilliant the way Chaney acted like a moron in order to snare Mattie—until I realized that, yes, he really was an idiot who got lucky that Mattie didn’t know how to aim a gun.

As I mentioned in my review of TRON: Legacy, filmmakers today have at their fingertips a catalogue of every movie ever made.  That’s as true of westerns as it is of sci-fi, so there’s no excuse for the Coen Brothers to not have tried to improve upon the bad guys of westerns past.  Think of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly.  Think of Unforgiven.  Think of The Wild Bunch.  Those movies have meaty, complex killers that you believe pose a threat to everyone in the film, including their own posses.  Tom Chaney is like the grumpy cook that the real evil boss would shoot in the face for undercooking his beans.

Okay, so what about the heroes?  Rooster Cogburn is an iconic badass; iconic in the sense that the white, scraggly hair, black eye patch and six-shooter-concealing duster look cool.  But as played by Jeff Bridges, he’s nothing more than a squirrelly drunk who grumbles a lot and occasionally does something heroic.  Classically, in order for a part like this to work, the reluctant hired gun needs to have an arc; he needs to transform from a gruff, dangerous killer into a gruff softy who comes out of his shell to help the wide-eyed newcomer fight through their disillusionment and take down the villain.  But from the moment we see Cogburn regaling a courtroom with his folksy, comedic account of a botched arrest, we know his character’s got nowhere to go.  It also doesn’t help that half of his lines are either unintelligible or require way more aural attention than should be necessary for any film; imagine Billy Bob Thornton’s character from Sling Blade after he’s suffered a stroke and you’ll get the idea.

A lot of praise has been heaped on Hailee Steinfeld’s performance, and much of it is of the, “She’s so amazing for only being thirteen!” variety.  She’s not amazing, and, truth be told, she’s barely passable as a film actress.  Her style belongs on a community theatre stage, and not the silver screen; this isn’t a knock against community theatre—merely an observation about Steinfeld’s theatricality, her “bigness”.  She gave me flashbacks to Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, but at least Garland exhibited range.  While my criticism of Steinfeld may have as much to do with the script as with her performance of it, I have to say she played a single, flat note from beginning to end—that of the petulant kid who wants to eat at the grown-up table.

Not once do we get any insight as to why she wants Tom Chaney dead; that’s to say, we never see her cry over her father or express any emotion about her family whatsoever; it’s as if she wants justice simply because it is the Proper Thing to Do in These Matters.  Add the fact that instead of being a spunky, determined little girl she’s humorless and single-minded, and you have what could be politely described as an out-of-her-depth little bitch as True Grit’s protagonist (if you think my assessment is harsh, pay attention to the film’s epilogue and find out what happens to Mattie twenty-five years later).

This leaves Matt Damon, who is terribly miscast here.  LaBoeuf is alternately a tough Texas Ranger and a complete stooge, depending on the demands of a given scene.  As mentioned earlier, he drops in on Mattie and Cogburn randomly, heading for the hills after each of their frequent fights and then returning, Han-Solo-style to save the day.  Rinse, repeat.  If you’ve seen the TV spots for True Grit, you’ve seen Matt Damon’s painfully corny delivery of the joke about the sun getting in Cogburn’s eye.  It gets no funnier or deeper than that for LaBoeuf; he is a walking, drawling plot device.

Speaking of talking, let me pose a question; your answer may determine how likely you are to enjoy True Grit.  At one point LaBoeuf is dragged behind a horse and nearly severs his own tongue by accidentally biting it; how much do you care that, in the next scene, he’s carrying on with Mattie and Cogburn with only the slightest lisp and absolutely no bleeding from the mouth?  A follow-up, if I may:  How much do you care that Mattie references LaBoeuf’s swollen mouth a few scenes later, when Matt Damon’s face looks perfectly normal?

This leads me to the nit-pick portion of the review (no, the previous paragraphs don’t count).  These are a few problems that no major directors should have let slide, and which convince me that—just as Burn After Reading was the Coen’s half-assed sketch that they needed to exorcise before diving into A Serious ManTrue Grit is the sloppy way station on the path to a better project.  Besides the LaBoeuf mouth problem, we have Mattie’s mysteriously un-soaked clothes that emerge from her neck-deep trek across a river.  There’s also the matter of Cogburn and LaBoeuf’s age.  At the end of the movie, we see Cogburn’s headstone, which reads, “Born: 1825, Died: 1903”, which puts him at seventy-eight years old.  Most of True Grit takes place a quarter-century beforehand, which would mean Cogburn was in his early fifties; that’s hard enough to buy by looking at him, but it’s even more outrageous when considering Mattie’s voice-over mention of LaBoeuf, who in the present is “closer to eighty than seventy”—this places him at roughly two-years older than Cogburn during their Chaney-hunting adventure.  I don’t fucking think so.  Nice try, Coens.

I was also let down by the fact that a big deal is made of the protagonists’ crossing into treacherous Indian territory, but the only Native American in the whole film is seen being hanged in town.  It’s action-movie blue balls of the highest order, and I didn’t appreciate it one bit.

That’s the best way I can summarize the Coen Brothers’ True Grit.  The movie has a (mostly) great cast and sprawling, old-west scenery, but it fails to make its case for being necessary.  I can name five westerns off the top of my head that render True Grit as relevant to this genre as The House Bunny is to comedies.  In putting their stamp on the classic western, Joel and Ethan Coen have succeeded only in creating an epic failure.

Note: I was just reminded of the two Native American boys that Rooster Cogburn harassed on the porch outside the cabin of a couple of criminals; I stand by my assessment of the Indian problem, though—that being the much-talked-about threat facing Rooster, Mattie and LaBoeuf.  The threat never manifested, resulting in a lot of chatter and no payoff. Thanks for keeping me honest, Edye.

This review also appears at Cinelogue.