Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An even truer helping of 'Grit'

It's not the tale; it's the telling.

Keep that in mind as you watch True Grit, the Joel & Ethan Coen remake of the 1969 western that won John Wayne his only Academy Award. The original was directed by Henry Hathaway - no slouch when it came to westerns - but the Coens have surpassed him in every way that counts: artistry, humor and a feeling for the sorrowful landscapes of the west.

The movie introduces us to 14-year-old Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teen-ager who hires a drunken marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down her father's killer (Josh Brolin), a wastrel who has hooked up with a thieving gang led by Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper). Cogburn's joined in his search by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, Matt Damon in the role Glen Campbell played in the original.

In adapting (maybe "re-adapting: is a better word) Charles Portis' 1968 novel for the screen, the Coens create an odd mixture of authenticity and exaggeration that's evident in the nooks and crannies of nearly every face in the movie. When the characters speak it's as if their florid declamations offer compensation for the lonely stretches of country captured in muted colors by cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Speaking in a voice that sounds as if it's being filtered through gravel, Bridges freshens the portrayal of one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, who -- in an iconic image created by Hathaway and repeated with slight revision by the Coens -- rides into a gunfight with his horse's reins stuck between his teeth.

Bridges emphasizes Cogburn's matter-of-fact approach to killing, an activity the movie regards with casual ease, perhaps because it's rooted in an environment where justice sometimes takes on an improvisational flavor. Cogburn's bouts of drunken sloth are interrupted by occasional forays into law enforcement. He's serious when he needs to be.

The language in the Coens' script exudes the kind of self-consciousness that demands to be noticed. That works in strange and not always beneficial ways: It makes the movie enjoyable even as it distances us from the characters and turns them into bizarre curiosities.

"Goodbye, Reuben, the love of decency does not abide in you."

So says Rooster, when disclosing his ex-wife's parting words to him.

In an oddly random aside, Cogburn offers this gem: "I'd give $3 right now for a pickled buffalo tongue."

Once he gets going, Rooster tends to rattle on in ways that almost qualify as annoying. Steinfeld's portrayal of a determined teen-ager serves as a counterweight to Rooster's rambling. She's as direct as a dart in a bull's-eye, and will not be deterred from a mission she regards as righteously just.

Because True Grit might be one of the least typical Coen brothers' movies yet, it's tempting to think that if you didn't know the movie was made by the team that brought us No Country For Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Miller's Crossing and more, you might not guess that the brothers were involved.

Still, you can feel their presence in the movie's fascination with the oddly turned phrase, in the austerity of its look, and in the way its characters tend to accept eccentricity as commonplace. Case in point: Ed Corbin's Bear Man. I'll say no more lest I ruin a sight that should be discovered in a theater.

I admired and enjoyed True Grit, but a slight, nagging doubt kept pulling at the coattails of my appreciation. Exactly why did the Coens want to remake a movie like this? Even in improved form, True Grit probably didn't need revisiting, but maybe that adds something, as well - a noble sense of futilely pursued goals that might have roused even Rooster from one of his legendary stupors.

1 comment:

Sal Cordova said...

I've been excited to see this movie since I first a preview a few weeks back. This review just made me more so. I can't wait.