True Grit

>> Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I'm at the Original Pancake House over by South Park. I mention this, not because it has anything to do with the Coen Brothers' new adaptation of the novel True Grit, but because it has everything to do withthis review, which is being written on my BlackBerry while I await eggs and sausage links. Normally when I'm doing a movie review, I like to include IMDB links and a copy of the movie poster and other relevant links and so on; and if I had a faster tabbed browser, if (for instance) I'd thought to bring the netbook along, I might have all of that.

I don't. I have a BlackBerry and thumbs and coffee and I'm awaiting breakfast-for-lunch and I just saw an utterly amazing piece of film, and I expect I won't be getting home 'til much later this evening. And I want to get this down, although I'm afraid my food just arrived and I'll be taking a moment, here.

(This isn't spectacular, but it hits the spot; all I've had to eat today was a bag of popcorn. The hashbrowns and sausages could be crisper--a good sausage skin ought to pop, y'know? But the eggs are about right. And you might be thinking, "Yeah, but eggs aren't that hard to do," and I can only say, "Sure, but you'd be surprised and offended.")

Anyway, True Grit: I know there are some people who are offended by the idea of a "remake" of an iconic Western starring John Wayne. And I don't know that I have an adequate response to that. It's been quite a number of years since I've seen the 1969 version, and I've never read Charles Portis' novel. I know my Dad loved the novel when it was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and was kind of miffed by the liberties the '69 film took and didn't think John Wayne really captured his idea of Rooster Cogburn, the Federal marshall played by Wayne in '69 and in the 2010 film by Jeff Bridges; I point this out because maybe my answer to those who see the Coens' film as a sacrilege against John Wayne is that mileage varies, and some people who weren't keen on the first movie might like this one more, since it apparently hews more closely to the book than the first one did. I don't know, I would like to read the book now, which hadn't occurred to me before.

Rooster Cogburn is the iconic character here, but he isn't the main character in the Coens' adaptation: that would be--

(--and here we had a long pause, and I'm no longer on the BlackBerry, but finishing this review on a friend's Macintosh--)

--young Mattie Ross, played by Ms. Hailee Steinfeld. Mattie's situation, explained to us in voiceover over a shot of her late father lying in the snow and light falling from the door of a rooming house, is that her father was killed by a ne'er-do-well, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and it's up to her to settle his affairs, though she's but fourteen. However, she sees her portfolio broadly, believing that settling her father's affairs includes making sure Chaney is brought to justice, for which she recruits Cogburn, thinking he's the meanest man she can find for the job.

Steinfeld holds the movie together brilliantly well, and does a masterful job with the role. She's not alone: Bridges' performance as Cogburn may very well be the performance of his career, and they're joined by Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf and a stellar collection of character actors filling in the various sundry roles.

The Coens and regular collaborator Roger Deakins shoot the whole thing with a nicely faded look suitable to the post-Civil War setting. It's another lovely looking film.

The Coens' dialogue is always a bit on the stylized side, as always, but here there's an extra layer to it: the lines have a very formalized cadence to them, an unusual diction and interesting choices of words. Dana Stevens at Slate said of the dialogue in Grit (here's the advantage of being back on a computer, though I'm hoping to wrap this up quickly and will eschew a link):

Its most marked characteristic is its dialogue, written in a peculiar archaic diction that, for reasons I still haven't fully understood, never interferes with the movie's emotional directness. Informed that another character has died, Mattie observes gravely, "His depredations are over." These characters, none of whom seem likely to have had much education, toss around words like braggadocio and remonstrate, and contractions, as a rule, are eschewed. The effect is non-naturalistic but curiously convincing. We're not meant to believe that people in 19th-century America actually spoke this way, only to accept that this is a world with its own formal (and often very funny) language and its own inscrutable moral code.

But I'm not sure that's right, actually. I don't know if people in the 19th Century spoke the way they do in True Grit or not, but I do know that if you look at letters people wrote in the period around the American Civil War and at literature from the era, there is a highfalutin' diction amidst the frequent mis-or-alternate spellings ("standardized" spelling still being a relatively recent thing in those days). This was a time in which everybody liked to name their kids and horses after figures from the classical era; I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if someone said another's "depredations are over."

Anyway, I'd like to wrap this up, and fear I haven't done it enough justice. This is one of the best movies I've seen this year, and I realize I've said that a good bit this year. But I think I'd have a hard time choosing between this and Winter's Bone and Black Swan, and that's a heady company to be a part of. This is a fine film, well acted and beautifully shot, and there's no legitimate reason not to see it; I'm already ready to see it again.


Nathan Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 7:07:00 PM EST  

We're going Friday afternoon(?). It's tops on our list. Glad you can recommend it.

Re: the dialog. I saw Bridges and Stienfeld interviewed on a show the other day, and their understanding was that schooling -- what there was of it -- was particularly strict about eliminating contractions from peoples' speech patterns. They were considered non-standard and particularly gauche.

Nathan Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 8:41:00 PM EST  

OK. We went today.

It's wonderful. And allow me to add: Josh Brolin is barely in it and he's absolutely riveting in every moment he's there.

Denis McDowell Friday, December 31, 2010 at 11:37:00 AM EST  

I enjoyed the movie very much.

The stylized dialogue is very similar to what was used in the wonderful (and sorely-missed) HBO series 'Deadwood'.

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