Sunday, February 27, 2011
True Grit: Keeping It Real, Coen Bros. Style
I think a certain degree of selling out is involved when a film becomes a big hit, especially if the filmmakers have largely created heretofore independently produced films. We live in the age of movie making where the major studios do not like to gamble. Films are test-screened, re-shot, re-cast, endless drafts of screenplays are written because when all is said and done, movies cost millions of dollars to make and there are potentially billions of dollars at stake. Oftentimes, independent filmmakers make a calculated choice to direct a big film financed with studio dollars and meddled with by executives, partially for the challenge in doing so but also for practical reasons—large grosses on a blockbuster can secure funding for the more personal story the filmmakers wish to tell. Thankfully, True Grit is none of these things. The Coen Brothers—Ethan and Joel—have created a film true to their own ethos, and it fits thematically into the rest of the work in their filmography. The Coens themselves are surprised at the success of True Grit.
In many ways, the success of the film is surprising. First of all, it belongs to a genre of film long considered dead—the Western. And True Grit isn’t a Western filmed with modern tendencies. Rather, the film is decidedly old-school and classic in its approach. It also flirts with disaster because it is a remake. Clinton Portis’ novel was first adapted to screen in 1969, and it starred John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, in the role which won him his only Oscar for Best Actor. I haven’t seen the 1969 version, and while I have heard that the original version of True Grit is not as classic as The Searchers or Stagecoach or some of Wayne’s more acclaimed films, his take as Cogburn is iconic—it is considered to be John Wayne’s last great role. Messing around with films that are considered classics or contain Oscar winning work is a burdensome task; the remake will inevitably set itself up to be unfavorably compared to the original, and there are few stars more beloved than John Wayne, who to this day retains an uncommon degree of popularity. Believe me, The Duke still abides.
Yet the Coen Brothers are filmmakers with an uncommon degree of skill. First, they benefit from the fact that the 1969 True Grit was not especially faithful to the Clinton Portis novel. The earlier film had a comedic take on the story, softened the violence, and featured a singing cowboy. The Coens made a film closer in tone to the novel, retaining the rough edges of the story and the archaic patois of Portis’ dialogue—the language is highly formal, and none of the characters speak in contractions. In their films, the Coens have always shown a love of language and especially colloquialism; if you’ve followed their work, it’s easy to see what attracted them to the Portis novel. I favorably compare True Grit to Fargo, which was a film that certainly contained a very specific form of colloquial dialogue.
The Coens have also proved themselves to be masters of many genres of films. While their films contain similarities, no two Coen Brothers films are exactly alike. They’ve made gangster films, noirs (of the color, black and white, neo-, and anti- varieties), smart comedies, stupid comedies, stoner comedies, 1930’s inspired screwball comedies, religious parables and a pseudo-musical inspired by The Odyssey. Sometimes their films contain all genres at once. While they have never made a straight-up classic Western (No Country For Old Men is more noir than cowboy) until True Grit, they ably succeeded in doing so. The Coen brothers are America’s master filmmakers.
The duo has also achieved name-brand recognition. Each new Coen Brothers film is always anticipated. While none of their films have achieved the runaway level of success True Grit has, the Coens have more cult and word-of-mouth films on their resumes than the average filmmaker. In fact, their 1998 stoner comedy The Big Lebowski—which also features True Grit star Jeff Bridges—is one of the biggest cult movies ever made. Audiences are more rabid for that film today than it was upon its release. In fact, all of the Coen Brothers films age remarkably well. Go pop in their first feature, 1984’s Blood Simple, and prepare to be blown away. Part of the reason their films have such a timeless quality is that the Coens often set their films in the past, and those films feel like they were shot in the time in which they were set. Another reason their films age well is because the characters are simply so exceptionally well rendered.
The Coen Brothers have long loved unique characters. Their films probably contain the highest degree of idiots, jackasses, schmoes and psychopaths than seen in the majority of American films, which tend to feature classic heroes and heroines. The Coens have a true soft spot for the oddballs, and their body of work suggests that Americans have more in common with the wackos in their films than the classic heroes we like to see ourselves as. The characters in True Grit are right at home with the other crazies in the Coen Brothers filmography. Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn as a fat, drunken sot. Eye patch aside, he hardly seems to live up to his billing of ruthless mercenary; he’s so fat and so drunk it is a wonder he can ride a horse. Rooster is a total slob. LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon, is a boob. First of all, he pronounces his name as “La Beef”, and where Rooster’s general drunkenness causes him to be underestimated, LaBoeuf is constantly overestimating his abilities. Their quarry, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) proves to be a gutless coward. Chaney’s boss, “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, who brings to life one of the scariest outlaws seen in recent memory), is a villain of honor, but also utterly amoral and lawless.
In fact, the only character in the story that truly displays the “true grit” of the title is the protagonist of the film, fourteen year old Mattie Ross. Played by Hailee Steinfeld—who is the same age as her character—the character is unflappable and righteous. She has come to collect a bounty on Chaney, who shot and killed Mattie’s father, leaving her as the functioning head of her family. Mattie has a terrier-like tenacity. She is constantly being told to go home, that she is in over her head, that the lawless towns of the West are no place for a young girl. But Mattie proves to be the smartest character in the film—there’s a scene where she thoroughly out-negotiates a horse trader (who reminded me a whole lot of the used car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, played by William H. Macy in Fargo) that proves her intelligence—and also a real pain in the ass. In a world of shifting allegiances and fuzzy morality, Mattie holds others to high standards. She expects value from the things she pays for. She expects that contracts and business agreements to be upheld. When she says, “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God,” the character is written in such a way that you absolutely believe it, and Steinfeld plays the part with utter conviction. In a world filled with rottenness, Mattie is a bastion of values.
The Coens rarely include characters of such moral integrity in their films. They have a fondness for rascals, so when a character shows true grit in their movies, it reveals something about the brothers themselves. They too, demand integrity. Mattie reminds me very much of the Coen Brothers best character, their most beloved heroine, Marge Gunderson from Fargo, played by the great Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife) in her Oscar winning role. Mattie, like Marge, is a character who holds steadfast to her beliefs, and is a force of goodness in a world where concepts of honor and loyalty are foreign. I like how neither character lets their most obvious weakness become their undoing—for Mattie, it’s the fact that she is still a girl; for Marge, it is her massive pregnancy—these women are truly undaunted. Mattie’s character also rubs off on both Rooster and LaBoeuf. The film makes it clear that neither man would be capable of rising to true heroism, but Mattie inevitably rubs off on both men, who go from finding the girl annoying to willing to sacrifice themselves for her without regard to their own safety. When Rooster faces off against “Lucky” Ned Pepper and his gang, bellowing “FILL YOUR HAND, YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH!” we are witnessing the birth of a hero and an instantly classic Western moment. Through Mattie’s example, lazy men become heroes and provide the Coen Brothers with their first truly crowd pleasing, rousing moment on film.
The crowd pleasing moment feels truly earned. The Coen Brothers made no compromises in the making of True Grit. They belong in the rare company of filmmakers who trust their audiences to believe in the power of strong characters in a good story. It isn’t surprising at all that audiences have responded so warmly to this film. And in close examination, True Grit feels right at home with the rest of the Coen Brothers films. Ethan and Joel Coen delivered a crowd pleaser by staying true to themselves, and making movies from material that inspires them. You get the feeling True Grit is exactly the kind of film the Coens would love if someone else had directed it.
The Coen Brothers have proven themselves to be an Oscar force. (Though this year they downplayed the 10 Oscar nominations True Grit received, saying “Ten seems like an awful lot. We don’t want to take anyone else’s.”) Their last three films—No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, and this film—have received Best Picture nominations, with No Country For Old Men outright winning. True Grit could certainly surprise, but it would be a long shot. The film’s best chances at capturing an Oscar would be with Hailee Steinfeld’s performance—she is nominated as Supporting Actress when she should have been nominated for lead. Steinfeld’s work was my single favorite performance from any actor in 2010. Having won the role over 15,000 young actresses competing for the part, Steinfeld is a true find, and unlike most of her teenaged peers, there isn’t a sense of mugging or phoniness in her performance. The girl is a gem. I also think that Roger Deakins should finally be honored for his cinematography—True Grit is a gorgeous film, and I was filled with regret when watching the images Deakins captured so beautifully. Westerns look so magnificent on film; it’s a shame that they aren’t made with as much frequency as they used to.
I feel Ethan and Joel Coen are the single greatest and most original American filmmakers working today, and they just may be the greatest our country has ever produced. With True Grit they have made an instant classic, and finally, audiences who may be unfamiliar with their work can see how brilliant they are.
True Grit (2010)
Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Total Oscar Nominations: 10 (Best Picture—Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Scott Rudin; Best Director—Ethan and Joel Coen; Best Actor—Jeff Bridges; Best Supporting Actress—Hailee Steinfeld; Best Adapted Screenplay—Ethan and Joel Coen; Best Art Direction—Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh (Set Decoration); Best Cinematography—Roger Deakins; Best Costume Design—Mary Zophres; Best Sound—Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland; Best Sound Editing—Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey)
NEXT BLOG: 2010 Academy Award Picks and Winter’s Bone