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True Grit (2011) by The Coen Brothers


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Ken Morefield:

If I have a concern–and I do–it’s that there was a lot of laughter in the first half of the film. Not the nervous, uncomfortable laughter that one might expect from dark comedy–genuine, unfettered laughter. Perhaps the audience has grown freer in its ability to be entertained by material that is dark and yet played lightly. The result is, though, that when the material turns more serious, as it must, the transition doesn’t really take. We see flashes, perhaps, of realization. We don’t really see much development. I understand that emotional development isn’t always linear. Even so, when Mattie objects to leaving a cabin without burying a few corpses, her backward glance seemed to forebode a deeper internal conflict than is ever realized.

Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Tom Chaney is perhaps the only real subversive element of the film. The Coens cut the early scenes with Chaney included in Hathaway’s film, including the actual murder of Maddie’s father. The Tom Chaney of the early film was a drunk and a coward; Brolin plays him, perhaps as a bit of a simpleton. I found myself wondering if he was supposed to be mentally impaired. (It’s hard to tell because everyone in this movie talks with a peculiarly slow cadence in combination with elevated diction.) Perhaps I just wanted him to be so that the film could be read as deeper or more problematic than I ultimately think it was.

I agree with Morefield insofar as I think the Great Films of the Coen Brothers are those that compel us to wrestle more vigorously with questions about depravity, violence, mercy, innocence, idealism, etc.

That's why my favorites - beyond the unequaled, inspired hilarity of Raising Arizona, which remains a singular achievement in comedy IMHO - are Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, and No Country for Old Men.

Having said that, I think the questions about violence, vengeance, and ethics are secondary in this film. I'm still thinking this through, and a second viewing may change my mind, but I'm inclined to think that "Retribution" is just the tease of this story.

Cheesy as it sounds, the real story is about an heartbroken girl who has lost a father figure, and who is responding to the cruelty of the world by charging full-speed ahead into a life of ferocious willfulness... and how she meets a veteran of hard-heartedness who has no love in his life.

The two meet and become for each other, to some extent, what they need.

Mattie sees in Cogburn a man with potential, but a man who - living only for whiskey and money - is in ruins. She gives him something more to live for, someone to care about.

Cogburn gives Mattie a mentor, a protector, and ultimately a man willing to put his life on the line for the sake of justice. Sure, I always prefer a story about mercy and grace. But in this landscape, you're lucky to see anything remotely resembling justice. It's a value that Mattie rarely ever sees in Cogburn's corrupt, cruel, adult world, where the arm of the law is very short indeed... and broken. Actions taken by lawmen are dubious at best - when lawmen act at all.

So the central story - the meeting and slow-brewing relationship between Mattie and Cogburn - won my heart and made me care. And the conclusion was moving even though I'd seen the original.

And it's hard to deny from the film's memorable closing image that the cost of Mattie's violent quest has been considerable.

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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There's an interesting new Q&A up at Deadline Hollywood:

DEADLINE: True Grit felt like it could very well have been an adaptation of a Larry McMurtry Western novel. The characters aren’t that smart, and they aren't really evil, but kind of wander into trouble. The lead outlaw played by Barry Pepper in True Grit is actually nice to the little girl. In Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, Javier’s character was overtly evil. You really had guys wearing white hats and black hats in that film, but Portis' characters are...

ETHAN COEN: Somewhat sympathetic. Especially Barry Pepper, in the way he played that part. It was really interesting. I agree, it is closer to Larry McMurtry.

DEADLINE: Did you look at this as an opportunity to give the characters a gray shading, which was not possible in No Country for Old Men?

JOEL COEN: We didn’t really relate one to another when we were making the movie, though it is interesting to consider in retrospect. When we were writing and making the movie, we were just trying to render and do justice to the characters of the book.

ETHAN COEN: But that element is attractive when you read that book. You go, this will be fun in the movie, because of that way this character comes off the page. How do we translate that? We did respond to the fact that there were gray areas.

JOEL COEN: That is very different from the Cormac book. Javier’s character is not only evil in a clear-cut way, he’s almost abstract. He’s almost not human. He served his purpose in the story, but he was almost not a real character.

ETHAN COEN: That was a very divergent adaptation problem from True Grit. The characters are very vividly drawn. But you’re right. In No Country For Old Men, that character that Javier plays is never even physically described.

JOEL COEN: He was more an idea than anything. A personification of evil.

DEADLINE: When you took on this project, the Western genre couldn’t have been more cold. This is PG-13, aiming for a mainstream audience. Did you pull back showing the violence of the Old West to get that rating?

JOEL COEN: Not really because we followed the nature of a novel that was more of a Huckleberry Finn, teen-adventure story feel to it. As opposed to a hardcore, something very violent, or even something that is more classically Western like a Zane Grey story.

ETHAN COEN: Also, thinking about the violence. Comparing it to Cormac’s book, there is some violence in True Grit, but the context is so less bleak than in No Country For Old Men. As Joel suggests, this was more young adult adventure violence as opposed to whatever you would call Cormac.

She shoots a bad guy off a cliff, then she trips and falls into a pit where there are snakes.

Everything follows willy nillly, it's all a bit heightened in an old picture book way.

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Due in large part to the rave reviews you all have given this film, I went to see it tonight.

You are not wrong. Wow.

What a great movie!

In case you were wondering, my name is spelled "Denes House," but it's pronounced "Throatwobbler Mangrove."
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I agree with Morefield insofar as I think the Great Films of the Coen Brothers are those that compel us to wrestle more vigorously with questions about depravity, violence, mercy, innocence, idealism, etc.

Absolutely. But unlike you, I'll take FARGO over NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, which, as far as I'm concerned, does a significantly more effective job of exploring similar ideas.

BARTON FINK is tops, though.

Oh, and I can't wait to see TRUE GRIT.

Edited by Ryan H.
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Absolutely. But unlike you, I'll take FARGO over NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, which, as far as I'm concerned, does a significantly more effective job of exploring similar ideas.

I'm with you here, Ryan. And that's not to say I didn't not like No Country — I just thought Fargo cut in a little deeper.

And yes, Barton Fink is totally tops. I always get giddy about the possibility of introducing it to friends.

As for True Grit, I'm incredibly excited...problem is, I can't find anyone to drag to the theater to see it.

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problem is, I can't find anyone to drag to the theater to see it.

The Coens have become mainstream enough that it surprises me that you can't find someone to see this particular film. But I've said this before, and it bears repeating: If attending good films depends on seeing them with other people, you'll be left wanting in terms of good cinema. Get used to seeing films alone, or you'll always end up with a watered-down consensus choice (rom-coms, action flicks and other star vehicles -- not that there's anything wrong with those).

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Fwiw, Jason, I think this is easily the most accessible film the Coens have ever made. And it is not, contrary to what some of the trailers suggest, anywhere near as dark or as dour as No Country; it's actually really hilarious, and surprisingly, ah, pleasant.

(I say all that as a huge fan of No Country, by the way, and would still consider that to be a slightly BETTER film than True Grit... but not necessarily a more FUN film.)

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I'll play the Wet Blanket role to which I apparently am so suited.

I can't say I was disappointed, because I know I should never have tremendously high expectations for the Coen brothers. But the cinematography and music aside -- Carter Burwell shames most orchestras with just one song -- I disliked this film intensely. The Coens seemingly cannot turn off their smart-aleck persona and their penchant for hyper-literary "screwball" dialogue and comic framing and cutting in the most inappropriate contexts. And I have long since ceased to be impressed with movies that claim to "demystify" old films or undermine conventional notions of heroism that ain't nothin but a sandwich or present a "more realistic" view unhampered by the puritanical Hays Code and the christofascist godbags who repressed whatever they weren't comfortable ... blah blah blah. I mean ... what else is there to say about a movie that introduces a character while he's sitting in an outhouse and later shows him stumbling-over drunk engaging in a cornbread-shooting contest?

Yeah ... well ... I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.

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And I have long since ceased to be impressed with movies that claim to "demystify" old films or undermine conventional notions of heroism that ain't nothin but a sandwich or present a "more realistic" view unhampered by the puritanical Hays Code and the christofascist godbags who repressed whatever they weren't comfortable ... blah blah blah. I mean ... what else is there to say about a movie that introduces a character while he's sitting in an outhouse and later shows him stumbling-over drunk engaging in a cornbread-shooting contest?

Well, given that the Coens claim not to have rewatched the original TRUE GRIT since they were children, I don't think they were attempting to demystify the original. If they're to be believed, they were just following their own instincts after falling in love with the novel.

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The only mystery to "demystify" from the original was what the heck they were thinking casting Glenn Campbell.

from David Hudson's sum-up:

Charles Portis, who wrote the novel in 1968, is "not a Pynchonesque recluse, exactly," writes Charles McGrath in the New York Times, but he "doesn't use e-mail, has an unlisted phone number, declines interview requests, including one for this article, and shuns photographs with the ardor of a fugitive in the witness protection program. He hasn't published a novel in nearly 20 years.... His elusiveness has only enhanced his status as a cult writer's cult writer, cherished by a small but devoted following. He has published four novels besides True Grit (all five have recently been reissued in paperback by the Overlook Press), and for years those in the sect have been pressing them on new readers like Masons teaching the secret handshake. The journalist Ron Rosenbaum, the unofficial grand vizier and first hierophant of Portis admirers, has called him 'perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America.'"

"Portis's novel is anchored by the starched voice of Mattie Ross, a stiff-backed Presbyterian," writes R Emmet Sweeney for TCM. "It is her voice that captivates, a preternaturally calm control stabbed with stubborn wit, rarely exhibiting the childishness of her age. As Ed Park wrote in his epic ode to Portis in The Believer, 'Her steadfast, unsentimental voice — Portis's sublime ventriloquism — maintains such purity of purpose that the prose seems engraved rather than merely writ.'" For the Stranger's Paul Constant, Portis is "one of the greatest American humorists, possibly third only to Vonnegut and Twain." Ross's voice in True Grit is "as Shakespearean as American English has ever sounded."

"The Coens lifted almost all of their film's comically ornate dialogue from the pages of True Grit," notes John Jurgensen in the Wall Street Journal: "(Joel said the idea to adapt the book started when he read it aloud to his son.) Another Portis film could be on the horizon. A trio of producers, including Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live, has an option on 1979's The Dog of the South. A favorite of Portis aficionados, the book follows narrator Ray Midge on a meandering journey to Mexico to reclaim his wife and, more importantly, the Ford Torino in which she and her lover Guy Dupree absconded."

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Well, given that the Coens claim not to have rewatched the original TRUE GRIT since they were children, I don't think they were attempting to demystify the original. If they're to be believed, they were just following their own instincts after falling in love with the novel.

Indeed. In interviews they make nary a mention of the original, yet have spoken avidly about their enthusiasm for the novel and their intentions to try and do it justice. Matt Damon said that, when meeting the Coens for the first time regarding the film, the first thing they instructed him to do was read the book (rather than the screenplay). Fidelity to Portis' work seems to have been their primary concern, not to "demystify" the original or the classical Western in general (and given this is only the second time they have chosen to adapt a novel, their affection for the material would seem to be sincere). Have you read the book, vjmorton, and do you have similar objections to it?

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Well, given that the Coens claim not to have rewatched the original TRUE GRIT since they were children, I don't think they were attempting to demystify the original. If they're to be believed, they were just following their own instincts after falling in love with the novel.

I knew that they went back to the source novel ... I don't think that means that this sort of "updating" isn't a motivating factor, either in the novel (which was written in 1968 after all, when Revisionism was in the air) specifically or in what generally attracts the brothers.

And actually, no ... I don't consciously *adopt* contrarian stances, though I probably do state those I hold with extra sauce.

Have you read the book, vjmorton, and do you have similar objections to it?

I have not. Doubt I will if, as everyone says, this arch dialogue was merely fidelity to the source (though it may play better on the page, I acknowledge).

their affection for the material would seem to be sincere

If I may, I don't think that last word (and the idea in the whole clause) can ever be taken for granted with the Coens.

Yeah ... well ... I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.

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Overstreet wrote:

: And it's hard to deny from the film's memorable closing image that the cost of Mattie's violent quest has been considerable.

Huh. That casts a moralistic spin on the movie that I never quite got. It just seemed to me that the qualities exhibited by Mattie during the violent quest were the same qualities that would have led her to end up the way she did anyway. You might say I see correlation but not causation, there.

Roger Ebert wrote:

: But this isn't a Coen Brothers film in the sense that we usually use those words. It's not eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky. It's as if these two men, who have devised some of the most original films of our time, reached a point where they decided to coast on the sheer pleasure of good old straightforward artistry.

FWIW, this echoes the review that Jeffrey Wells posted almost a month ago:

There are few if any filmmakers with austere rock-star chops like Joel and Ethan Coen, but you can't call a movie a home run just because it's smartly assembled. Craft only gets you so far. The film has to be about something that matters to many if not most people. And I am telling you that True Grit, while beautifully made with some deliciously formal old-west dialogue (much of it straight from the Charles Portis novel, I gather) and a smart, spunky debut performance from Hallie Steinfeld, is essentially a cold and mannered "art" western that matters not. . . .

See also Ignatiy Vishnevetsky @ Mubi (aka The Auteurs):

True Grit: four keenly-realized characters suspended in a moral vacuum. The realization of the characters is a question of the actors' inventiveness and a certain interaction of editing and screenwriting; the moral vacuum belongs to the directors, who are also, incidentally, the screenwriters and editors. . . .

Taken together, these tendencies can make for good comedy but suspect drama; the "Based on a True Story" credit in Fargo is a bleak and funny gag, but the bible verse at the beginning of True Grit seems like the first in a series of elements that could only be called "moral bric-a-brac"—acknowledgements of morality within the space of a film that doesn't really admit any concern for moral issues and which takes its ugliness at face value. Jeff Bridges, booting Indian kids off a porch, is every bit as spiteful as Eastwood in Gran Torino, yet there's nothing in True Grit to balance or counteract his spite; this is either a moral flaw or the entire agenda (it'd be a stretch to call it a "point") of the film. . . .

I'm inclined to think that the Coens are apolitical not because the individual films lack politics, but because each film puts on a different kind of politics like a costume (coarse cynicism in Burn After Reading, American populism in The Hudsucker Proxy, vaguely neo-conservative dread in No Country for Old Men, etc.), and I'm also inclined to think that they're amoral filmmakers (which is not say that they're amoral people) because their morality changes from film to film, and their personal stances (whatever they may be) are largely uncoupled from their directing. That is to say: True Grit, for better or worse, is an object d'art, and at a certain point it becomes impermeable. This makes it all the more ironic (and fascinating) that the character-driven non-plot of True Grit—a small group of people whose sense of identity, purpose and the world expresses itself through "inevitable" petty actions, and ultimately through a selfless act—is essentially the story of the old (still extant) cinema. This was—and is—a cinema driven (like literature, theater, art or music) to express something other than itself. But this story is told through the devices of a "second cinema," the "post-cinema" that has emerged since the 1970s and of which the Coens are often the standouts. This is a high-minded cinema where decisions are replaced by choices, a cinema of conscious, often ironic stances, which concerns itself not with using movies to answer external questions, but with using form to support its own internal systems of character and plotting. Here, this mode of filmmaking has been purposed to follow the trajectories of four people who are its opposite. But those people are seen as alien, as if the camera doesn't quite understand them—as if their purposes, however faithfully reproduced, could never completely be understood, and though we know that Bridges carries Steinfeld of his own free will, it can't quite be explained why, except with a shrugging "that's just the sort of guy he is."

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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their affection for the material would seem to be sincere

If I may, I don't think that last word (and the idea in the whole clause) can ever be taken for granted with the Coens.

Heh. Well, I must confess that I find the Coens' reputations as mere smart-asses, and their supposed inclinations towards condescension and smugness, to be greatly exaggerated -- and the accusations to be almost always poorly supported, as if the points are so self-evident that they don't require an actual argument or any evidence (this last point is not at all directed at you, however, it's just my general frustration at how frequently the Coens are shrugged off in some circles). But I haven't seen the new film yet, so have no opinion one way or the other on it specifically. What interested me about your comments, though, is that they seem so antithetical to nearly every other reaction to the film that I've come across -- most of which emphasize how straight the Coens play it (and, indeed, how old-fashioned the film feels) and how affectionate they are towards the characters.

Edited by Titus
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And actually, no ... I don't consciously *adopt* contrarian stances, though I probably do state those I hold with extra sauce.

I was just having some fun...I definitely appreciate your contributions, whether they are in agreement with the masses or not (like with Grit and Malick). I will confess to being less bothered by the "revisionism"-except where it relates to It's a Wonderful Life...I hate revisionism there.

"You know...not EVERY story has to be interesting." -Gibby

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: And it's hard to deny from the film's memorable closing image that the cost of Mattie's violent quest has been considerable.

Huh. That casts a moralistic spin on the movie that I never quite got. It just seemed to me that the qualities exhibited by Mattie during the violent quest were the same qualities that would have led her to end up the way she did anyway. You might say I see correlation but not causation, there.

Oh, I don't think there's any question that the Coens depict Mattie's quest coming at a considerable cost. In a Coen film above all, it's got to be crucial that, at the climax, it's the rebound of the shot with which she takes the life of her father's killer that knocks Mattie into the pit, leading to the loss of her arm.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Oh, right, that. Somehow I'd forgotten that detail.

Hmmm. Limb-losing has become something of a theme this year, hasn't it? I mean, what with this film, and 127 Hours, and How to Train Your Dragon ... any others?

Oh, heh, of course there's also Saw 3D, although I can't remember if there was any new limb-losing there or only what was carried over from the previous films.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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