Thursday, December 30, 2010

True Grit: Theatrical Review

Release Date: December 22, 2010

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Edwards Irvine Spectrum 21
Time: 6:00 pm December 22, 2010
Projector Type: Digital

Loves: The Coen Brothers, Westerns
Likes: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon
Neutral: Remakes
Hates: The endings to all recent Coen Brothers films

The Coen brothers are probably the most frustrating film makers out there, to me at least. I love just about everything they have done going all the way back to their origins in the 80's. They display a certain amount of care when it comes to how characters interact and relate to one another unlike any other directors working in the business today. Their characters may seem off kilter and extremely off the wall at first but after just a few lines of dialogue you can't help but become completely enveloped in their strange mannerisms coupled with their general sense of oddness. Even the characters that seem to be grounded in some sort of reality have these quirks and identifiers to them that gives each and every person on screen their own unique personality. The frustrating part to all of this is that to this day neither Joel or Ethan Coen have ever truly ended one of their films in a satisfactory manner.

I know, I know...that is part of the charm to their films, it is what they do and to some extent I have come to accept that and to a lesser degree I have learned to appreciate it. But I still cannot grasp how two talented film makers like them are able to craft such an engaging and well constructed piece of entertainment out the gate each time, take the lead for the extent of the race only to come to a grinding halt in the last few minutes of their films. True Grit is for lack of a better term their crowning achievement, I cannot for the life of me think of anything truly wrong with this film. The actors, the story (despite not being original), the imagery provided my the master of cinematography Roger Deakins, and just the plain realism they bring to such an overly cliched genre are pitch perfect...and then the ending of the film happens and derails it.

Mattie is on the lookout for some justice to be served.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has just lost her father. He was murdered in cold blood by a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) whom escaped and hasn't been seen since. Upon arriving in town to claim her father's body and return it home she realizes that nobody in this town really seems to care about the murder and has written it off as a lost cause due to Chaney fleeing into Indian territory with some other bad elements. Mattie takes it upon herself to hire a Marshall by the name of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down Chaney and bring him to justice. Their hunt is complicated slightly by the arrival of the Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) who has been on the trail of Chaney for quite some time. It is up to Mattie to get Cogburn out of his drunken stuper and on the trail while making sure that LeBoeuf doesn't steal Chaney away to pay for one of his many other crimes other than the death of her father.

Like most Coen brothers films the genius is in the simplicity of the tale they spin. Very few of their films ever get complicated or bogged down by plot elements. They simply usher us through this grand stage they have constructed and litter it with characters we can't get out of our heads even hours after the film has ended. The most recognized face for the film is without a doubt Jeff Bridges taking on the role John Wayne played in the original 1969 film. The eye patch is probably one of the most iconic pieces of apparel in the original film and the same goes for this updated version. Jeff Bridges proves once again why he he is such a renowned actor by displaying a range of emotions through just a single glance from a single eye. His Rooster Cogburn talks in a raspy monotone drawl that has this entrancing effect whenever he speaks which makes you stand up and take notice whenever he opens his mouth. The effect is only enhanced when he speaks in a matter-of-fact no-nonsense manner to anyone that gets in his way or crosses him.

LeBoeuf isn't as mysterious as he may seem.

While Mr. Bridges is most certainly the poster child for the film, and deservedly so, he is out performed at every instance whenever Hailee Steinfeld is on screen. This girl is nothing short of a revelation, she single handedly steals the film from everyone involved. One could call her Mattie Ross a spitfire, someone too smart for their own good and who doesn't know when to shut her mouth. She slings insults and insights out like there were no tomorrow. When she speaks to someone they usually are left standing there slack jawed and speechless which I wouldn't be surprised to hear is probably a common audience reaction as well. Mattie is well spoken, to the point and doesn't like to be swindled. If someone tries to pull a fast one on her she is as quick as a gunslinger to whip out a threat of being sued by her trusty family lawyer. She uses her intellect to great effect to get her way but, as life often does, she learns in some not so friendly ways over the course of her adventure that not everything in life revolves around making people do what she wants from idle threats.

The third part of the equation is the ranger LeBoeuf, when we first meet him he has this mysterious aurora about him. That image is quickly shattered though upon his initial encounter with the wiley Mattie where she speaks plainly to the man and we learn he isn't exactly the amazing tracker he makes himself out to be. The way he displays his badge with a sly look away tells us that he is at once proud of his title and also just a wee bit over confident as well. He has been tracking Chaney for quite some time when we come to meet him and he isn't about to let this little girl and her hired Marshall steal his prize (he has a sizeable award waiting for him back in Texas for a live prisoner) or insult his proud heritage. The three of them end up forming a very temporary and fragile alliance as they track down Chaney.

Cogburn & LeBoeuf head out after Chaney.

The thing that separates this western from just about any other out there is the atmosphere the Coens bring to the table. Their idea of how it was to live in this time is both familiar and somewhat off at the same time. A lot of this has to do with the dialogue and the language used throughout the film by just about every character we meet. From the mortician who repeatedly tells Mattie "It's OK if you want to kiss him" while referring to her father's corpse or the strange doctor they come across wearing a bear skin whom seems like he is in a kind of hypnotized state. The rules of the Coen western is also an odd one, they seem to find pleasure in the little details that most film makers wouldn't give a second thought to. I really enjoyed how the situation was handled when Mattie and Cogburn come across a corpse hanging high up in the tree line that they need to check the identity of. It was...different, and I would have never guessed that a dead body could be used as an item for trade...

Another instance of this is Mattie's first night in town, she has no money and ends up having to sleep in a coffin amongst three dead bodies belonging to men she just saw hung earlier that day. While that detail serves no real purpose in the grand scheme of things it does help give us a sense of the hardships for people living during that time. The town itself is a kind of enigma, there doesn't really seem to be anything happening there, it just is. And I felt as though nothing really mattered, people just wanted to wake up, go about their daily business and go to sleep each day. It was only when Mattie came into the picture each time and through her persistance to have justice served that I stood up and took notice. It was an odd feeling the film had planting inside my head and an even stranger view of the old west but it worked like a charm on me.

One of the few moments where Mattie is speechless.

Another well known aspect of any Coen film is the humor. Not in a true comical sense though because they never work like that. The humor is always derived from something serious or something unexpected. Mattie is a perfect example of this, her matter of fact way of talking to people is perfectly serious at all times yet we can't help but laugh or smirk at what she says, how she says it and most importantly who she says it to. Her negotiations with the man who sold some ponies to her father was a masterful scene where it accomplished not only informing us of how the economy works and how Mattie was not to be triffled with but also gives us probably one of the funniest dialogue exchanges I have seen all year.

They don't shy away from the sight gags either, a scene later on in the film has Cogburn consistently kicking these kids off a porch (literally) multiple times for no good reason. There isn't any dialogue and no real reason for any of it to exist other than to provide some sort of levity. Nothing the Coen's have ever done can truly be explained, you just have to accept it and move on. Donnie needed to go to In & Out burger, H.I. McDounnough needed some pampers, Everett needed his dapperdan, and Cogburn needed to kick those kids off that porch. I couldn't explain it if I tried, but I wouldn't want to. I love those moments of quirk and it would feel wrong if it wasn't present in each and every one of their films.

Brolin's Chaney is one odd fella.

By this point if you haven't gotten the idea yet then I suppose I should just tell you that this is an amazing film. I don't think it is my favorite of theirs but I do believe it is probably their most consistent film to date. There are no dull spots and nothing that will have you checking your watch. Everything moves along at just the right pace and we get some sudden scenes of violence that will shock you and remind you why this is the WILD west. I would have put this at or near the top of my favorite films of the year and if it weren't for that dam ending it would be in the top three for sure. In order for you to understand what I mean then I must get into some particulars for not just this film but some of their past films as well. So be warned, spoilers for this and other Coen brothers films coming up now, skip to the last paragraph to read my final spoiler free thoughts if you feel so inclined.

OK, a couple years ago I saw and loved No Country for Old Men...until it ended. I saw and was intrigued by A Serious Man...until it ended. Now this film I saw and loved...until it ended. With No Country it was a classic bait and switch, we got a film about a man being chased by a brutal killer and then the ending had nothing to do with that, the man being chased was killed in a random gun fight, the killer got in a car accident and walked away, and we saw Tommy Lee Jones giving a speech about...whatever. A Serious Man was about a man dealing with his life, his family and his job and the ending...well I can't even call it an ending...I actually thought when the screen went black that my player had shut off. The ending for True Grit isn't near as much of a let down as those other two but still leaves much to be desired. The problem I have will all these endings is that we just don't ever get any sense of closure for anything.

Cogburn may only have one eye but that doesn't seem to be an issue for the man.

I understand that it is an artistic decision and that they are trying to give us life...because life doesn't end until we die, it just keeps going. I think that is a lousy excuse to not end your film properly. I give these guys plenty of good will because I love their stories but I have started to become frustrated with their inability to end their films. True Grit seems like it is heading towards a meaningful and emotional ending and just when you think the film is going to end at an appropriate place it just keeps going and we get this prologue detailing with what has happened to our characters like twenty years later and...let's just say there was no need for that. I didn't need to know what happened to these people years after their adventure together...I wanted to know what happened to them directly after that adventure, how it impacted them and if they had any growth from the experience. What we get instead is a flat and uninspired ending that tells us nothing of what happened to any of them emotionally to an otherwise amazing sad.

Like I said though the film is still a must see and it has been my experience that not everyone has had the same issues with how their films end that I do so consider my opinion on it to be more of a warning than an anything else. I will still own this film when it hits home video and I will get as many people to see it as humanly possible. The performances, especially Ms. Steinfeld's breakout performance, are all top notch and the fact that we got a Coen brothers western finally is something to be celebrated.  Without further ado I must say...



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