Have I complained about people requiring “originality” out of Hollywood? Well here’s one for you. True Grit (1968) is a book, by Charles Protis, made into a movie with John Wayne a year later, and now made into movie from the Coen Brothers. There are a lot of movies out there that don’t capture the tone or power of a book. Some might say that no movie can capture the spirit of a book. Well, that’s untrue. That theory is tied to the idea that making an adaptation is somehow a cheat. I think the better perspective is that a book, if it’s good, gives you a full, unified, organic narrative that goes beyond a screenplay. The problem is that the people who translate the book to film suck. I haven’t read the book, but I suspect True Grit (2010) shows us what can happen when thoughtful filmmakers can do with a book.
Mattie Ross’s (Hailee Steinfeld) father was killed by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and she’s going to see him taken to justice. To that purpose, she has engaged Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a local U.S. Marshal with one eye and a taste for whiskey, to take her into the Territory where Chaney has fled. LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger (and proud of it), is also on Chaney’s trail for a separate offense done in Texas. The trio doesn’t get along very well, but set out to find the perpetrator who they suspect has teamed up with the outlaw Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper).
The first thing about this movie is the dialogue. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie that takes up an anachronistic style of speaking that didn’t annoy me other than this one. Movies or television shows with distinctive dialogue are usually terrible. I’m thinking of Luck (2011) and Deadwood (2004-06), which make me gag whenever I hear them. But there’s something Shakespearean about True Grit’s dialogue. The little things that make you chuckle, the fullness, and the rapid-fire wit was all great. Judging from the DVD featurette, I can’t tell whether credit should go mainly to Joel and Ethan Coen or Charles Portis, the author.
The second thing about this movie is the performances. Uniformly awesome. The reason why most Shakespeare plays on film don’t work out is when the players don’t believe their lines. But when they’ve got the skills of those involved here, they come together perfectly and it makes the experience great. The story is so good too. It sets up a dynamic between the main three characters that carries the movie along so well. And, because the actors are uniformly great and great together, it deepens the experience into a sort of timeless realism which probably has more to do with the palatability of the dialogue than not. If I were being picky, I’d probably say the third from the last ending was a bit thrown together and I didn’t get enough time with the villains to create much of a payoff, but during the movie I had no such thoughts.
And the soundtrack is great too (Carter Burwell). It’s not something you’re going to go out and buy, but it does enhance the environment.
The strong visuals maintained through most of the film are squandered with a bit of ludicrous lighting that made it clear it wasn’t shot on location. It was going so well! Strong landscapes, good camerawork, and then it all comes apart in the last five minutes. It went all Indy-Coen on me.
Indy-Coen kind of annoys me. It annoys me almost as much as fans of Indy-Coen annoy me. It’s not that it’s pretentious, it’s that it takes on a Wes Anderson level of quirkiness that I can’t watch comfortably. If things get weird, then you need a confused Dude to make it work. Maybe it isn’t Indy vs. Mainstream Coen, maybe it’s George Clooney Coen vs. Jeff Bridges Coen (with horrific violence as a corollary). Maybe it’s jazz/bluegrass vs. silence/ambiance soundtracks. Maybe I have no idea.
This one’s great, though. Worth buying under $10–lucky day it’s $8 on BluRay on Amazon.