Wednesday, January 12, 2011

True Grit (dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)

While I normally try to be quite speedy about reviewing films shortly after seeing them (if I'm to review them at all), sometimes I simply do not know what to say when I fall so immediately, deeply in love with something. My critical digestion becomes completely muddled in the ecstasy of shot composition, vocal inflection, music, and editing that trying to express any of it inevitably ends in a sort of "and, and, and...IT'S JUST SO GREAT." The true pleasures of cinema override those around which you could possibly form some sort of thesis, hypothesis, theory, or argument (and I believe I'm remembering high school chemistry and debate well enough to differentiate those correctly).

At its core, True Grit is precisely that sort of cinematic ecstasy, the purest distillation of the medium's pleasures that the Coens have crafted since...well, Miller's Crossing for some, but if you're as fond of O Brother, Where Art Thou? as I am, then that'd be just as suitable a reference point. So eager are they to revel in anything and everything the Western genre has to offer that they'll just as happily trot out something as weird as a bearskin-cloaked doctor as have Jeff Bridges scream, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!" I've not read the Charles Portis novel upon which the film is based, nor have I seen the 1969 John Wayne film adapted from same. I have no idea how much of this is the Coens' invention or if they used their read-and-type method that produced the Oscar-winning screenplay for No Country for Old Men, but you can tell in the Coens' treatment of everything that dances across their screen that they are in love with the world they're creating. That kind of genuine love is infectious.

They're also walking a fine line, one they've always walked with ease, integrating comedy into a drama without tipping over into the former. Again, they've always done this, but True Grit is remarkably - and appropriately - free from the irony and condescension of their previous work. I'm not one of those people who thinks the Coens hate their characters. Mostly I just don't care about their attitude. But there's a reason they often depict people who are completely inept at what they do - they are fascinated and amused by the ways people (re)act in dire situations.

But that's not what's going on here, although they do take some pleasure poking fun at Tom Chaney (and Josh Brolin is magnificent in this role, both menacing and pathetic). There's a warmth to this film that has never been very pervasive in their work, shining through only occasionally (in Marge and Norm's relationship in Fargo or that part in The Big Lebowski when, after scattering their friend's ashes, Walter says, "Fuck it, Dude. Let's go bowling"). Even when the characters here are at their most pitiful - Rooster Cogburn's introduction is one for the ages - there's an affection present that's quite, let's just say it, charming in an old fashioned sort of way.

The Coens are notorious for recycling and reinvigorating the feelings of classic films, from the gangster picture (Miller's Crossing) to the screwball comedy (Intolerable Cruelty, Raising Arizona) to the noir (The Man Who Wasn't There) to the cartoon (The Hudsucker Proxy) to even lifting a title from Preston Sturges (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). But never have they so embraced the genre they've tackled as they do here.

The cast is outstanding. In her debut role as a fourteen-year-old who thinks she has the world pretty well figured out - and, most of the time, really does - Hailee Steinfeld is a superb anchor, and it ain't easy anchoring a Coen film. She plays a fourteen-year-old trying to act like an adult without playing it like an adult, and the parts where she plays her fourteen-year-old wish-fulfillment are some of the happiest moments I've seen all year. She wasn't given any breaks, that's for sure - constantly going toe-to-toe with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, themselves turning in really stunning work, is a challenge for any actor. In Bridges' case, I'd argue this is the finest performance he's given since The Big Lebowski, and I love me some Jeff Bridges. There's some fine character work going on here - Rooster Cogburn knows exactly what he is, and does a pretty good job of avoiding that - but it's just a pleasure to watch Bridges act, something we can rarely say in a post-Method world that demands "realistic" performances.

And that's what True Grit does best - it gives us pleasure. I too admit to finding it oddly moving towards the end, but at its core True Grit reminds us what a simple, yet profound, pleasure it can be to go to the movies. Not a thrill ride, not an adrenaline rush, not a tearjerker or a heart-warmer, as such. But just an absolute joy. I loved every second of this film twice through.

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