Sunday, February 6, 2011

Caitlin's Review of True Grit

TRUE DAT by Caitlin Murphy

In the very first images of True Grit, a so-very Coen Brothers sleight of hand: from the black screen, a warm, orange glow in the upper-right corner slowly emerges; instinctively, we lean into it, seeking its source, to find a front porch basking in its embrace. The next thing we notice: the dead body on the front lawn. And that's kinda how life happens, isn't it? At least according to the Coens. Creeping up on us when we're falling for something else. Or is it busy making other plans? However expressed, it seems the brothers enjoy teasing us with this truth, as though asking: “feeling welcome?... lulled?... content?... well, (pointing at something dastardly) explain that then!”

I can be a real purist when it comes to drama – I enjoy high stakes, clearly stated. Despite the simplicity of this formula, richness and depth seem to inevitably ensue. It's a paradox I try not too hard to unravel. Though I've never really gravitated to Westerns, my limited experience with them suggests they often nail this paradox right to the slatted saloon wall. High Noon, for instance – all I remember is that it was a near-real-time tale of a sheriff awaiting two men coming to town to whump him. I don't remember the details, the whys or what-nots, and I love that those things don't matter – and, by extension, I love that film. When all you need to know is that the shit's gonna hit the fan at noon, the only question that merits asking is “what time is it now?”

In True Grit, we get 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, who, according to the Academy at least, plays a supporting role in her own story), boldly embarking on a clear mission: to avenge the death of her father (body on front lawn), by capturing his killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie quickly does her research and recruits the help of Rooster Cogburn, a washed-up, unwashed U.S. Marshall (Jeff Bridges at his deliciously slurred and sloppy best), and unwittingly that of the more buttoned-up LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, who (is it just me?) keeps getting more interesting). The trio set off with hearts in different places, but sights on the same prey.

In one scene, a humourous pissing match between Rooster and LaBoeuf (notably both men have animals as name-sakes) erupts in the form of competitively shooting at bread-rolls thrown into the sky. The scene shows how men in each other's company, especially in the hands of the Coens, so naturally veer towards the pathetic. In this, and many other moments, where Mattie's mere presence exposes the pointlessness of machismo, we see a favoured Coen motif – revealing to men their own ineptitude, but as gently and compassionately as only the Coens can. It’s something I’ve always liked about the Coens actually: they don’t really deal in cheap shots. LaBoeuf's lisped speech, for instance, a result of nearly biting his own tongue off, becomes oddly not so much a source of humour in the film, as a new matter of fact. (Through the eye-patched Cogburn, the near-muted LaBoeuf, and other (spoiler) examples, the theme of maiming, amputation and bodily sacrifice looms large in the film.)

When Mattie finally gets to confront her father's killer, it's because she stumbles unexpectedly upon him one morning as she’s fetching water in the river. Clearly she’s unprepared for the very moment she's been doggedly pursuing, as though happening upon an animal she didn’t know existed. The scene is beautifully simple and poignant, reminding us that it is the emotion that propels the chase – not its supposed object – that is the real purpose of any pursuit. The enemy can never live up to our idea of him; he will show up out of nowhere; he will usually disappoint. Typically then, of course, the mission becomes about something else, something far more interesting, and it certainly does here. Life creeping up on us indeed.

The Coens are such masterful storytellers that we can sometimes forget they're no slouches in cinema's more aesthetic realms. The visual style of True Grit captures the irony that flattening life makes it appear more fully inflated: several shots appear framed by the proscenium arch of the stage; characters often look like cardboard cutouts, shadow puppets on a screen; and the starry night sky seems much like a piece of construction paper, with random holes poked through it, held ever-so-lovingly up to the light.

Watching True Grit, I was reminded of a director friend of mine's response to a question about creating drama: “How do you know when something's working?” Her disarmingly simple response was “because I care”. It strikes me that with the Coen Brothers, they care about everything, and as a result, not surprisingly, so do I. Nothing is mere backdrop, context, exposition, supporting roles or set dressing – nothing is wasted; it's all heart, and it’s all in the right place. Like its protagonist, True Grit is articulate and does not speak in contractions; it enunciates clearly in language that is plain, compelling, complete and true.

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