Monday, December 27, 2010

That Evening Redness in the West...

Tone is everything.

The Coen Brothers' new version of True Grit (2010) is largely the same movie as Henry Hathaway's 1970 version. The plot is the same. The various incidents are the same, though the new movie embellishes them in ways that would never have occurred to Hathaway. Hell, this "more faithful" version points out that the original was fairly faithful to Charles Portis's novel in the first place. The Coens make two vital changes, though. First they shift the focus of the movie away from Rooster Cogburn and back to Mattie Ross. Second, they film the West as some kind of apocalyptic wasteland rather than as an epic landscape.

The first change is a subtle way of defusing comparisons between the Coens' Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, and Hathaway's Cogburn, played by John Wayne. Frankly, when you have John Wayne play the character, the movie becomes about him, and the 1970 version amplifies this by providing him with two co-stars in Kim Darby and Glen Campbell who can't endure the blazing light of his stardom. The new film does not have that problem. Bridges vanishes into the role and the role vanishes into the movie and the spotlight returns to where it always should have been in the first place.

The second change, the tonal change, is what really separates the two movies, though. Some of the shift can be attributed to the change in shooting locations. The Coens shot their film in Texas during the bleak heart of winter. Hathaway shot his in Colorado. But that's not all of it. I'm tempted to call the tone of this movie the aftertaste of the Coens' flirtation with Cormac McCarthy. The West of this movie is a West built on corpses. The movie begins with Mattie Ross's father lying dead in the snow, then shifts to a public hanging, then shifts to Mattie sleeping the night in the undertaker's warehouse with both her father and the corpses of the men who have been freshly hanged. Another hanged man, dangling from a high branch in the wilderness, also figures in the movie as a terrible signpost and mememto mori. The gang of "Lucky Ned Pepper," the villains of the piece, are more feral than any cowboy outlaws I can remember, but the movie is otherwise populated with some of the grotesques that the Coens like so much so it's all of a piece. The violence in the movie has a brutal finality to it that most Westerns would quail at. The result of all this is a movie that's weirder than one expects, and more than a little bit distancing.

As I say, though, it's largely the same story, in which 14 year old Mattie Ross hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn, a man she has been told possesses "true grit," to track and bring to justice the coward, Tom Chaney, who shot and robbed her father. Chaney has fled into the Indian territories of Oklahoma where he has taken up with the gang of Lucky Ned Pepper. He is also being pursued by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who teams with Mattie and Cogburn with the intent of collecting the substantial reward for Chaney's capture. Metaphorically, the Indian Territories are off the edge of the world. Law and order doesn't figure there. Neither LaBoeuf or Cogburn wants Mattie to accompany them, but Mattie has other ideas and is both whip smart and headstrong. She will not be swindled, and demands to oversee the hunt. Inevitably, they catch up with Chaney and Pepper, and after Mattie gets herself captured by the gang, Cogburn has to find a way to take them all.

The movie establishes itself as Mattie Ross's movie early. Hers is the voice heard narrating the story at the outset, and she is the character whose every move we follow, beginning to end. She's played in this movie by Hailee Steinfeld, who was 13 when the film was shot, and she blows just about everyone else off the screen. She is NOT outshone by the garrulous Bridges--who plays Cogburn as a much less likable sot than Wayne did--and she's certainly not outshone by Matt Damon's LaBoeuf. The Coens have found the ideal actor for Ross, something that manifestly eluded Hathaway, and they've coaxed a star-making performance from her. Damon, for his part, is pretty good as LeBoeuf, who he plays as kind of a dandy. The Coens re-stage their sequences to accommodate the shift in the film's point of view. Two of the film's major action sequences are shot in distant master shots--particularly the final confrontation between Cogburn and Pepper's gang--that remove some of the immediacy from them, but place the audience behind Mattie's eyes. This amplifies the film's last action sequence, though, which begins with a rattlesnake pit and ends with a ride across the Territory that plays more as hallucination or dream fugue than it does as a story event.

(As an aside, the rattlesnake pit is one area where the original film exceeds this one. It may be because I saw the original when I was very young. It was one of my dad's favorites, so we watched it whenever it came on television and I remember seeing it in a theater at least once. In any event, the rattlesnake scene haunted my nightmares for a long time. While these associations may color my perceptions, I also think that the use of CGI snakes takes some of the terror out of that scene and reduces its impact some.)

This movie includes a coda that the original film omitted, too, that mourns the passing of The West and its heroes (and, by proxy, mourns the passing of the Western), but which firmly and indelibly draws the woman that Mattie Ross becomes, defined by her "true grit," and etches her in stone. The last shot, in which she walks away from her family plot, is kind of perfect.


Gillian said...

I've not seen it yet, but the trailers and still I have seen convey yet another aspect of the novel which is lacking in the Henry Hathaway film: a sense of historicity. In the casting and in the general look of this film, there is a sense that it is not simply a western but a story that takes place in the US in the late 19th century. Many westerns tend to forget the fact that their stories are played out in real places.

Deborah said...

I saw it on Christmas and I've been trying to define for myself why I liked it very much and yet didn't find it great. "Distancing," is, I think, the right word.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Deborah: my partner had a very bad time at this film--another one of those bad times triggered by screen violence and some private trauma--so I was kind of disconnected from the movie anyway, so I may have felt the distance more keenly than I ordinarily might. Your experience is similar to mine in any event. I think it's a terrific movie--as a formal object, I can't think of a single thing to say against it--but I don't think it's a film I can love unreservedly.