Monday, January 24, 2011

Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit: Not Exactly a Home Run

Man, but it's been a long time since I've visited this corner of the Blogosphere. My apologies.

Truth be told, I've been far from idle. Between massive changes and upheavals, and a heap of outside projects, the ol' Petri Dish has been laying cold and neglected. More on all of that later...Maybe.

Meantime, I've given myself an hour (gotta sleep, y'know) to wax cinematic in these electronic pages for the first time in too damned long. And where better to start than in a movie theater?

I went into True Grit--the Coen Brothers' remake/reimagining of the 1969 John Wayne western--over Christmas, readily equipped with high hopes. Like most movie nerds worth the butter on their popcorn, I've been a pretty huge fan of Joel and Ethan Coen's brand of rejiggered genre cinema for a long time, and figured that this latest effort would maintain those lofty standards. Bottom line: True Grit does, and it doesn't.

For those unfamiliar with the original movie (or the Charles Portis novel on which it's based), True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, an adolescent girl who hires Rooster Cogburn, an alcoholic wastrel of a US Marshall, to apprehend the killer of her father. Along the way, she and Cogburn join forces with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf to track down the culprit--hired hand Tom Chaney--and square off against Chaney and the outlaws with which he's aligned himself.

Looking back at it now, the original True Grit, entertaining as it is, is no masterpiece. It's an old-fashioned western, relatively untouched by the aesthetic influence of contemporaries like the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Epics or by the socio-political upheavals that left their fingerprints all over so much of the era's films. But it's a pretty entertaining formula picture that showcased John Wayne's craggy appeal to good enough effect to garner The Duke his first (and only) acting Oscar.

It's to the Coens' credit that they really do try to give their version its own distinctive flavor and life, ratcheting up the (pardon the pun) grit and sprinkling their distinctive brand of gallows humor into the mix. Carter Burwell's score bypasses the Old-West bravado of the original's Elmer Bernstein soundtrack in favor of something richer and more steeped in the time period, and cinematographer Roger Deakins (the Coens' DP du jour for a long time now) once again delivers some amazing work for the Brothers. 

Key members of the current movie's acting ensemble register strongly as well. Young Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie with a solid sense of purpose that feels totally genuine, and Matt Damon disappears (literally: it took me several minutes to recognize him) into the role of LaBoeuf. The Coens also improve on the relationship between LaBoeuf and Cogburn, rendering it more plausibly adversarial than in the original. Oh, and Barry Pepper's pretty damned entertaining in the role of lead heavy Lucky Ned Pepper.

So why didn't this new True Grit deliver for me? I'm still working that out. Part of it may be because the Coens have made a career out of subverting genre to their own ends; and here, they try to do so with a storyline that fairly cries out for a more conventional approach. The Coens' untethered imaginations thrive in self-generated projects, and this adaptation of a familiar property just feels like too limiting a structure for them.

But the biggest fault (to these eyes, at least) lies squarely at the center of the film, within Jeff Bridges' characterization of Rooster Cogburn. Yeah, John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn was John Wayne Playing John Wayne, but he telegraphed the character's core of tarnished-but-indisputable backbone clearly. The Coens have let Bridges run bull-in-China-shop-style through the remake: For much of the movie he's a jumble of Actors' Studio affectations and tics; and his indulgent lapses into method-actor mumbling sound uncomfortably like Pa Bear from the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Hillbilly Bears.

Just when Deakins' cinematography--or Steinfeld's quiet determination, or Damon's unaffected work as straight-arrow LaBoeuf--would draw me in, Bridge's uncured ham act would completely pull me out of this often carefully-crafted world (the fistsful of huzzahs being thrown at his performance have me utterly stymied). It reminded me, all too frequently, that I was viewing A Show-Off Performance in A Remake of A Movie; not following an adventure. Only in the last twenty minutes of True Grit does Bridges set aside the affectations and begin to inhabit the character, and by then it's too little, too late. Silly as it sounds, Bridges' previous work as The Dude in the Coens' stoner-noir The Big Lebowski was more subtle, more consistent, and--dare I say it--several shades more believable. Swear to God.