Thursday, January 20, 2011

"True Grit": the review

Most reviewers of the Coen Brothers' 2010 Western, "True Grit," have tended to make one or both of the following moves: they've contrasted the new film with the 1969 John Wayne version, and/or they've contrasted the film with the Coen Brothers' other movies. They've noted that the new version is, if you'll pardon the pun, grittier than the John Wayne version, and that the new movie isn't the usual Coen Brothers exercise in self-conscious style and darkly humorous irony. I generally agree with these observations, so instead of delving into those same contrasts, I'd prefer to begin this review by noting some of the similarities I saw between the 2010 "True Grit" and Clint Eastwood's 1992 masterpiece, "Unforgiven."

Both movies proceed slowly and deliberately. Neither film begins as most modern action films would-- that is, with some sort of fight or chase scene to hook the audience. Instead, both movies are content to plod along, their plots unfolding at a leisurely pace, unpretentious camera work allowing the actors to act. At the same time, both movies offer us stories that build to crescendos pivoting on the meanness of the mean drunks inhabiting their centers.

Granted, Eastwood's mean drunk, William Munny, is orders of magnitude darker and nastier than Jeff Bridges's cheerfully murderous Rooster Cogburn ("Unforgiven" was rated R; "True Grit" was PG-13). Once Munny crawls into his bottle at the end of "Unforgiven," you know a lot of people are going to die. With Cogburn, you're never quite sure whether he can shoot straight. Despite these differences, however, both films thrive on a slow buildup of intensity, with their (anti)heroes coming through in the end.

They also see their central characters through young eyes. This is more true in "True Grit" than it is in "Unforgiven," of course: Mattie Ross narrates the story of her adventure with Rooster Cogburn, whereas the Schofield Kid joins the story after the beginning of "Unforgiven," and loses his nerve before the very end when he figures out that, unlike William Munny, he has no lust for killing. Still, the younger folks in both films view the older folks with a measure of awe, and as Jeff Hodges noted in his post on the Charles Portis novel True Grit, a great measure of love in Mattie's case.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. While I generally agree that this was an uncharacteristic effort by the Coen Brothers, I don't think they strayed too far from what they've done before. One signal trait of a Coen Brothers film is the verbal tic-- something you also see on "Saturday Night Live." The idea is that you give one or more characters a particular, and exaggerated, way of speaking, and then you repeat it ad nauseam. Think about the "OK, then"s of "Raising Arizona," or the "Oh, yah!" of the good citizens in "Fargo." "True Grit" accomplishes this same feat by making its characters, almost without exception, avoid the use of contractions. That, along with the subdued musical score by perennial partner-in-crime Carter Burwell, reassured me that I was watching a Coen Brothers film.

My buddy Dr. Steve gave the movie high praise, though he expressed some disappointment in Josh Brolin's decision to play Tom Chaney, the man who killed Mattie Ross's father and the object of her vengefulness, as a cartoonish oaf. I wasn't as turned off by Brolin's dramatic choice, though I'd agree that Chaney's silliness may have loosened some of the tension during the movie's climactic scenes. He could have been more sinister, especially given how large he loomed in Mattie's imagination.

Barry Pepper was hilariously filthy as Ned Pepper, the wool-chapped leader of the creatively named Ned Pepper Gang. Pepper, who famously portrayed the prayerful sniper in "Saving Private Ryan," is an extremely athletic actor; it wouldn't surprise me to learn he did his own horseriding stunts during the nighttime-ambush-at-the-cabin scene. I also have to wonder whether the actor's surname influenced the casting director's choice.

One of the more impressive cameos was by Ed Lee Corbin as The Bear Man, a dentist/trader/hunter who has manifestly spent too much time alone, and who speaks in a bizarre rhythm that defies all normal human cadence. It's The Bear Man who directs Rooster and Mattie to the cabin where we meet the ill-fated criminals Emmett Quincy and his partner, a quivering Methodist named Moon. (I had originally wondered whether the unstable Quincy had been played by Coen Brothers regular John Goodman, but the actor's face didn't fit Goodman's looks. As it turns out, Quincy was played by Paul Rae.)

Matt Damon did a fine job as LaBoeuf (pronounced "luh-BEEF" in the film, which tickled me), the Texas Ranger who loves to tell everyone he's a Texas Ranger. In the end, though, we discover that LaBoeuf, who is pursuing Tom Chaney for reasons of his own, isn't all talk: he's a crack shot at four hundred yards, which turns out to be a good thing for Rooster. If Rooster Cogburn is the movie's Han Solo, eager to charge headlong into danger, then Damon's LaBeouf, with his shaky loyalties, is its Lando Calrissian. With his tongue bitten part-way off after he's been lassoed and dragged a ways across dirt and rocks, poor LaBoeuf spends half the film sounding like an Art Buchwald wannabe. This, coupled with his multiple departures from the group ("Eighdee-os!"), adds a pitiful element to the comic relief.

Hailee Steinfeld's perky, feisty portrayal of Mattie Ross, the girl out to avenge her father's death, was about as note-perfect as it could be. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, "...few people would get a crush on Hailee Steinfeld." He wasn't calling the actress ugly-- she isn't-- but he was noting that Steinfeld's Mattie is a little pistol, intelligent and ruthlessly purpose-driven, not someone to be toyed or trifled with. The only time we see Mattie truly falter is the moment Rooster shoots her exhausted horse. Once the deed is done, words fail her, and all she can do is beat weakly against Rooster's arms as he picks her up and gasps his way across the plains, racing against time before Mattie is overcome by the snake venom in her veins.

For Steinfeld, who radiates alertness, confidence, and poise in her interviews, this couldn't have been a better breakout role. It showcased her ear for accents and her ability to rattle off lengthy lines of dialogue in a manner that somehow avoids the trap of stilted or overwrought speech. I predict she's got a great career ahead of her, as long as she can keep her head and not get sucked into the Hollywood vortex.

Finally, hats off to Jeff Bridges as ornery Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, an ex-bank robber and downright rascal who faces death with a grim smile and more than a little liquid courage in his bloodstream. Bridges is older now, long past his Dude days, but he still had to be made up to look even crustier. In a Dude versus Duke comparison, it's hard to say whether it's Jeff Bridges or John Wayne who presents us with the more convincing or iconic or memorable Rooster Cogburn. I tend to think they're both on a par, with Bridges having the advantage of starring in a far better version of the story. I also think that, as delivered by Bridges, the 2010 Cogburn gets all the best lines in the movie.

"Shot? Or killt?"

If you haven't seen the new "True Grit" yet, git on out there and see it in theaters before it disappears entirely. All that gorgeous cinematography will be diminished on Blu-ray, no matter how huge your new flat-screen HDTV might be.



hahnak said...

now after reading this i REALLY have to go see true grit.

id never noticed all the "ok, then"s in raising arizona. i will have to rewatch a lot of other movies to see if they also have these tics. what would it be for "a serious man" i wonder...

i note that a commenter watched the original before watching the coen bros true grit. would you recommend this? did it make it sort of more fun? or was it not worth it? maybe instead i should watch unforgiven. let me know.

nice post. nice formatting on your post. and thank you for your review! hope you have a good rest of the week, kev

Charles said...

I don't remember seeing this here.. I wonder if it is yet to come out. Definitely have to go see this one if it does. I love a good Coen Brothers film, as does HJ. The last of theirs we saw was Burn After Reading,, which we both enjoyed immensely.

Kevin Kim said...

If you haven't seen the John Wayne version, I'd recommend watching the Jeff Bridges version first. It's a better film, and you don't want to be distracted with scene-by-scene comparisons while you're watching.

Thanks for liking the formatting. I was worried that the first comment I'd get would be along the lines of, "Take all those damn pictures outta there!"

I saw John Wayne's "True Grit," from beginning to end, years and years ago on TV. I remember loving that film's version of the final four-on-one gunfight between Rooster and the Ned Pepper Gang, and I think part of me was comparing notes when the fight occurred in the newer film. There have been some complaints that the new film is better in almost every way except for how the final gunfight starts, but I leave it up to you to judge that. After you see the new film, and if you have time, maybe go rent the DVD of the John Wayne version.

I may have mentioned before that Roger Ebert's review of the 2010 film comes pretty close to my own feelings about it. One of the things Ebert notes is how much better the new Mattie is compared to the old Mattie (even though he liked Kim Darby as the 1969-era Mattie); he also talks about how conscious we were, back then, that Rooster Cogburn was John Wayne, whereas Jeff Bridges disappears into his role, and all we're conscious of is Rooster. That's sounds about right.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good review. I've got to see this film now for sure . . . though I was already planning to.

Thanks for the plug, too.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

John from Daejeon said...

The new version was "okay," but the Duke (as an old, one-eyed fat man) jumping a four rail fence in the final scene, Robert Duvall, a poorly portrayed Bostonian Texas Ranger (see Lonesome Dove for how the pros did it--see Robert Duvall above), the music, and, of course, the original's locales make this new version nothing more than a five gallon hat compared to the first's ten full gallons (well 3 quarts if you want to get technical about it).

Kevin Kim said...


Oh, you contrarian! I gather you're closer to the Rex Reed camp than to the Ebertian School. (Scroll down to read Reed on "True Grit" at that link. He's pretty down on the movie.)


You're welcome for the plug.


I'll be curious to find out the Korean title for the film. How would you translate "true grit" into Korean? I'm racking my brains to figure out how'd I'd say it in French. I take "grit" to mean a combination of courage and perseverance. The closest French word I can come up with is "cran," which can mean "guts" or "nerve."

But I don't think "cran" is quite right; I recall it being used in the French translation of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns: the Joker, whose neck has been broken by Batman, taunts Batman by saying Batman didn't have the nerve to break the Joker's neck severely enough to kill him; the Joker was merely left paralyzed. Ultimately, the Joker kills himself by summoning up the will to twist his head the rest of the way, completing the break.

In English, this line went something like, "You'll always know that, in the end, you didn't have the nerve." "Nerve" was rendered as "cran" in the French version, but we seem to be in the wrong semantic field for "grit." Hmmm. Will have to think this over.

Charles said...

First instinct for "grit": 배짱. Didn't even have to think about it, it just popped into my head. Still, how would the whole title be rendered? 진짜 배짱? While there is a certain lexical and phonological symmetry to that, it sounds slightly ridiculous--at the very least it sounds humorous. And I think that's the problem with 배짱 for "grit"--they are more or less in the same semantic field, but the "feel" is off.

Anyway, I can tell you exactly how the title will be rendered in Korea: the same way every other film title is rendered in Korean these days. That is, 트루 그리트. Absolves the translator of any responsibility to convey the spirit of the film in just a few words (like how Ghost was rendered as 사랑과 영혼). It's getting a little stale in my opinion, but that seems to be the trend these days.

The last Coen Bros. film title (the last that we saw, anyway) was rendered the same way, if I remember correctly: 번 애프터 리딩, or something to that effect. I was disappointed that it wasn't something like 독서후 소각. That would have far better conveyed the idea of top-secret documents, I think.

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah, I also wondered whether "트루 그리트" might not actually be the Korean title.

Very often, new releases in Korea will be marketed at the cinemas: I remember seeing racks of pamphlets intro'ing the new movies, giving some background info on a given film's basic premise/scenario, and even some production notes about the actors, the director, and so on. If I'm not mistaken, these pamphlets sometimes also include explanations of English titles-- all to serve the purpose of "priming" the Korean audience member for the experience of a Western film.

If "True Grit" comes out in Seoul and you have a chance to pick up a pamphlet, I'll be curious to know the Korean explanation for the expression.

Charles said...

Really? I never knew that. I've seen the pamphlets before, but I've never really paid any attention to them.

If it does come out in Seoul and we get a chance to see it, I will definitely pick up one of those pamphlets to see what it says.

Kevin Kim said...

I'm assuming we don't make such pamphlets in the US because (1) we're not all that interested in foreign films, which is a shame; and (2) we're worried about littering and pollution, which is a legitimate concern.

hahnak said...

just saw it today with toddler in tow. only one other person in the theater, a tough granny. hope she didnt get too annoyed when the baby started acting up towards the end of the film.

although im already a coen fan im glad you urged readers to go see this movie on the big screen.

it was definitely worth the trouble.

i cant wait to see it again.

my favorite exchange:

-- ...the tongue is bit almost through. Do you want to see if it will knit or should I just yank it free? ...I'll just yank it free.

-- It will knit.