Monday, January 3, 2011

The Duke and the Dude duke it out in their respective Grits.

I remember quite clearly seeing the original True Grit as a boy; one rainy day my mother took the whole family to Radio City Music Hall to take it in as a treat. This was back at the fading end of that movie palace's heyday - although the Rockettes still danced after every picture, and the organ came up from the floor like something out of Close Encounters; to me, the movie was almost a sideshow to the theatre itself. (I remember demanding we take a seat at the top of the third balcony, just because we could, but as this was some seven flights up, everyone else insisted on at most the second balcony.)

I recall the movie pretty well, too; I wasn't really that into Bonanza or any of the TV westerns, and I didn't have much connection to John Wayne, because I'd never seen any of his early, enjoyable films. Nor, as I was only about ten, did I key into the movie's streak of reactionary nostalgia. Instead it struck me that, like most Westerns, True Grit had a good, violent beginning and a dull middle and then a really good, violent end that featured a great scene in which Justin Bieber look-alike Kim Darby was trapped in a rattlesnake pit. Indeed, I still recall the startling shot in which Justin (I mean Kim!) tumbled back from the recoil of her pistol and disappeared into the yawning hole behind her - which I immediately remembered was a literal snake pit.

I also think that somewhere, the thematic import of this event - that achieving vengeance had thrown Darby into a kind of moral stinkhole from which she would have to be rescued - registered with me, too. So I was surprised when I didn't feel the same shock of thematic recognition in the Coen Brothers' highly praised remake of this hoary old potboiler.

I was doubly shocked, in fact, because after years of ironic, nihilistic wittiness, the Coens got religion a few years back (at left), and have developed a specialty in dark Old Testament dramas set in dying landscapes. Thus, with its themes of judgment and retribution, I expected True Grit to be a true sib to No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man (a movie that literally imported the Book of Job into the American suburbs). Together these films resuscitated the brothers' artistic bona-fides, and gave one hope that real ideas could still prove commercially viable on the American movie screen.

But I'm afraid True Grit can't really stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those fascinating flicks. In the end, it's just a remake, with a few comically-grotesque Coen touches and a lot of mannered dialogue (lifted straight from the source book, by Charles Portis, where I think it's meant more ironically than it's rendered here), but little of the thematic spine that held together No Country and Serious Man. I'm afraid instead we'll have to store Grit on the same shelf as Coen misfires like The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. It's at the top of that shelf, I'd say, but it's still on the same shelf.

And just as an side, the existence of those obvious tiers in the Coens' output has always suggested to me a fascinating critical question. I know the Brothers C insist they operate as an artistic unit, but let's talk turkey for a moment, and finally ask the question - who has been responsible for what over the course of their joint career? I mean their output has been so variable, the question all but asks itself. It's hard for me to believe that even between brothers (especially between brothers!) every decision can be 50/50, so - who came up with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and A Serious Man? And on the other hand, who suggested The Man Who Wasn't There, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Ladykillers?

In general, I think a rough division suggests itself between the Coens' more original works and their homages.  The "originals" are generally better - it's when they're doodling on an existing template that the Coens sometimes get into trouble.  In True Grit, you can almost feel their interest in the material rising and falling with their own contributions - but the overall design of the picture isn't re-fashioned accordingly; indeed, while the Coens claim they never consulted the first movie, the large action sequences - never a Coen specialty - sometimes ape, or even imitate shot-by-shot (at top), the look and feel of the original.

I suppose the Coens thought they could have their postmodern cake and eat it, too - they felt they could insinuate a critique into the structure of the original Grit without disturbing its audience-pleasing aspects. They'd just replace the Duke with the Dude, and coast on a new generation's hammy self-awareness.  This would have been a neat commercial trick, but for subtle reasons it doesn't quite come off.  Not that the cast is really to blame.  To his credit, Jeff Bridges contributes a genuine performance as Rooster Cogburn - the role that got John Wayne his long-delayed Oscar.   It's not really a surprising or original take on the character - it's low-key, in a manner that slightly, but not insistently, suggests the Dude gone to seed.  Beyond that it's pretty much what Wayne served up, too, if at a smaller scale; but Bridges commits to the role completely, and his querulous timing is as sharp as ever; he holds the picture together, just as Wayne did.  As his slightly-clownish, slightly-sexy sidekick/rival, Matt Damon does what he does best - that is, disguise his deficits in personality and presence with crafty cinematic smarts; this guy plays cinematic dodgeball better than any Hollywood star I can think of (with the possible exception of Brad Pitt).

Filming Grit on the streets of Austin, Texas.
Still, you could argue that without really outsized central performances, the book's implied parody of the Wild West can't really take hold.  And while Damon is serviceable, he doesn't really get much of a rhythm going with his pint-sized co-star, fourteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld.  But then Bridges doesn't get much further with her either.  In the central role of Mattie Ross, who hires Cogburn to track the killer of her father, young Steinfeld has been widely praised - probably because nobody wants to hurt the feelings of a teen-aged girl thrust into such a spotlight. But I'm afraid she's the central gap in the picture; Steinfeld is poised and appealing, and handles the dialogue's circumlocutions quite well - I'm sure she has a career in Hollywood ahead of her.   But she's both too young to connect romantically with Damon (as the older Darby sometimes did with Glen Campbell in the original), and yet she also projects little of the grim sense of childish determination the Coens seem to think they're conjuring; indeed, her performance makes you long for bitter little Tatum O'Neal to be teleported in from Paper Moon (and once Elizabeth Marvel takes over as the grown-up Mattie, in a deadpan epilogue, we suddenly sense everything we've been missing till now).

Oh, well. Steinfeld was probably just a shade too young to really carry off the demands of this difficult part. But the gap in her performance means that the theme of the movie goes slightly haywire. The Coens clearly meant to align True Grit with their recent thematic concerns - they want their new Grit to demonstrate that vengeance is the Lord's, not Mattie's. In their version, as in the book, the rattlesnakes take the heroine's arm with their venom; she doesn't actually have a right to her vengeance - she has to pay for it. And only Cogburn's intervention, and the death of her beloved horse, prevent the price from being even higher - the old one, in fact, of an eye for an eye. And yet somehow as we ponder these buried themes, we sense we're doing all the work the Coens should have done for us up on screen. Yes, they lay on with a trowel the moral squalor of the West - men come and go dressed in animal skins, trading corpses; but without closer connections between the protagonists, and a clearer ironic snap to the finale, the point of the picture is all but lost.  We've now had two Grits; but I don't think we've seen the true one yet.

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