10 01 2011

TRUE GRIT was the #1 film in the country this past weekend – and the Coens’ first ever to pass $100 million at the box office, mazel mazel fellas – so likely, you’ve already seen it. But, if you haven’t, stop reading.

Joel & Ethan Coen’s last film, A SERIOUS MAN, opened with a religious epigram: “Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you.” A suburban re-telling of Job, SERIOUS was a black comedy about the futility of seeking to know divine will, and the perils of attempting to; its preamble cryptic, and not a little sarcastic, considering the twisted parable that followed. And though the Coens’ follow-up, an adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel TRUE GRIT, also opens with an epigram, this time from Proverbs, its opening narration invokes an idea that’s fairly opposite the stance the boys took in their last outing. “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another,” announces our narrator, 14 year-old Mattie Ross. “There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” To hear this put as natural fact is jarring, coming from the Coens. Apparently, after an entire career reassuring viewers of the underlying chaos of the universe, they’ve finally embraced the inescapable order of things. (Apparently, there is one.) ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.’ This from the guys who let off friendo of the devil Anton Chigurh with just a broken arm.

Mind if I do a J?

Mattie, played by newcomer/keeper Hailee Steinfeld, goes after her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, (a strangely unrecognizable Josh Brolin.) To track him, she hires the most lethal Marshal she can find, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges.) What follows is all entertaining, humorous, gorgeously performed and photographed, but for the purposes of this lil’ blog entry, let’s skip right to the ending, shall we? (See: above spoiler warning.) In GRIT’s climax, Mattie gets her man with a shotgun. The blast propels her down a cave. In keeping with the film’s opening statement, it’s Mattie’s own squeeze of the trigger that sends her tumbling back. Once in the cave, she drags a nearby corpse toward her to access its blade – but in doing so, she unleashes a nest of vipers slumbering in the dead man’s chest. It all has the feel of a parable, as last time, but the Old Testament causality of A SERIOUS MAN was impossibly mysterious, and the brothers’ follow-up is too faithful to its Western genre roots to pose such open-ended questions. It’s a given, in GRIT, that violence begets violence: an unambiguous relationship.

Barry Pepper (right) co-stars as "Ned Pepper," apparently by sheer coincidence.

Though Cogburn saves Mattie from the pit of serpents, she’s already been bit – and ultimately loses an arm. Each of the characters of the film is marked by and according to their sins; equal and opposite reaction physicalized. Mattie the revenger draws death closer, and loses her limb. Grandiloquent Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon, terrific,) bites through his tongue – the price he pays for letting pride send him from his companions. Cogburn himself has one eye; the killer is a natural dead shot.

Unlike the Coens’ usual variety of killer, though, Cogburn actually reaches redemption through violence. (See: genre fidelity.) But lest you worry “redemption” translates to “softening,” the Coens of course know better, and Cogburn doesn’t get any nicer as TRUE GRIT goes, he stays satisfyingly gritty. Yes, Cogburn saves Mattie in the end, arriving in the nick of time – but when the girl is first taken by Ned Pepper’s gang, and Cogburn leaves her, he stays gone. LaBeouf explains later that the sole reason this plan came together was that he found Cogburn coming down the ridge, and only then did they decide to return together. In other words, Cogburn wasn’t about to turn around, he was leaving the girl for dead. Mattie’s rescue has as much to do with luck as with heroism.

Any visible change in Cogburn is held off practically until his last on-screen moment. The penultimate scene has Cogburn carrying Mattie on her horse, ‘Little Blackie,’ as he rides through the night to get help for her snakebite. Green-screen effects are very clearly used – artificiality that reminded me, for some reason, of the end of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, the escape downriver on an obvious soundstage. Both sequences are quiet, sharing a serene, fairy tale quality that highlights their characters’ connection with the natural world. When Little Blackie bucks, Cogburn stabs it in the haunches to spur it. And when it finally collapses, exhausted, he puts a bullet in its head – a choice that’s unnecessary, not to mention cruel. By modern limousine liberal standards at least.

Fear not, Matt Damon will return in 'True Grit 2: Too Grit.'

Having killed his ride, Cogburn picks up Mattie and carries her. Roger Deakins – don’t leave home without him – places Cogburn’s feet in the same shot as he did the horse’s feet. I mean hooves: we track, above and behind. Cogburn finally drops, too, and says, “I’ve grown old.” Equated with the horse, Cogburn’s taken the place of the thing he kills – not reducing the number of living in the world. A child’s life is saved, natural balance is restored, Cogburn is redeemed, and so concludes the most purely emotional portion of any Coen film – by about a four miles, I’d say. We’re a long way from the shock and awe of NO COUNTRY, or the noir amorality of MILLER’S CROSSING… or THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE… or THE BIG LEBOWSKI… or BLOOD SIMPLE…

It’s worth mentioning here, TRUE GRIT is the first Coen film on which this blog’s namesake appears. Yes Spielly himself is a credited executive producer here – and it’s fitting that of all the brothers’ films, this is the only one that even comes close to resembling a Spielberg product: the protagonist a kid in jeopardy, the antihero made whole, and justice served. Make no mistake, this is new territory for the Coens, who keep managing to do what they haven’t done before. At this point, the only kind of movie they have yet to make is a bad one.


Criterion Cinemas, New Haven, Connecticut

Saturday, December 25, 7:30pm showing