Saturday, January 22, 2011

True Grit: Obsessed. (here there be spoilers)

I've seen it four times now; for some reason I keep getting called back. I was surprised by how incredibly funny the film actually is, and how much more like a classic Western it is than the gothic curio I thought it was going to be. The material is perfect for the Coen brothers, and I love what they do with the characters. They always make such unusual choices, and their hintings at the complexity of seemingly straight-forward characters from familiar stories makes me very happy. Lebeouf, for example, is a prissy lout at first glance. Pompous etc, he's a Texas Ranger who lives off of seeming impressive. Flummoxed by Mattie and Rooster who do not follow his rules, he mocks Rooster as pathetic and humiliates Mattie by spanking her and basically attacking her with a switch. Where Mattie's grit intrigues Rooster it pisses off Lebeouf because to him there are RULES and Mattie insults him and scares him by not keeping to what he sees as law. He wants to see her as a little girl who needs protecting, but this she's not, at least not in the way that Lebeouf believes. However, in the end Lebeouf is winning, his insecurities exposed and some affirmation finally attained-- not for being some big-man Texas Ranger, but for being someone who fundamentally cares about what's right.

Rooster is also expertly etched-- an ex-badass, apparently lacking in character, alcoholic and over-the-hill. He is a pathetic sort, really, judging by his behavior and the stories he relates to Mattie about his younger days. The film exposes that, but doesn't dwell upon it as it could. It does not dramatize Rooster's pain and patheticness much, it doesn't wallow in that sort of thing-- in fact, he's mostly a funny guy. It's only in glimpses, around the edges, that one really takes in how hopeless Rooster sort-of is. At one point he mentions two of his wives leaving him, one taking his son, who according to Rooster never cared for his father, anyway. Rooster expresses some regret for speaking roughly to his son, saying he "did not mean nothing by it." Mattie is his redemption-- from the time she makes it across the river he builds admiration for her, seeing in her the "true grit" they have in common, he pledges to finding Cheney for her. He's just no use, however, much to everyone's disappointment, until he must be. When Mattie finally calls for him, he summons the grit and the goodness he didn't know he had, to do one good thing, the thing that will redeem him. He becomes an unlikely savior, but only because Mattie saved him first.

James Brolin as Cheney (Chaney?) is also a thoughtful presentation. He is not as one would expect a villain to be presented. He is lowly, dim, whiney and scroungey, adding insult to Mattie's injury. His voice is not threatening but kind of high and strained. He is just a lowlife that serves Lucky Ned, who himself is also unexpected. As it turns out Ned has his own set of well-worked out ethics, and isn't that much into killing people unless he has to. In fact, despite the fact that he's kind of gross, he's a smart, nice dude. He shares his food with Mattie and tells Cheney that no harm should befall her. Of course, Cheney is mad, and logic doesn't really appeal to him, especially in the face of stress. Anyway, Ned is at least as acceptable a companion as Rooster is. I liked that. As much as I like very evil character portrayals, especially amidst the wilds of a Western story, I like the acknowledgment that society itself was fairly wild at that time (something I also like about the presentation of Eastwood and Hackman's characters in Unforgiven). At some point the audience has to wonder what, exactly, the difference is between Rooster and Ned, and at the time of the shoot-out, the answer is really, not that much, except that Rooster is starting to feel the desire to act.

As interesting as the male characters are, Mattie is, thankfully, the centerpiece of the film and its namesake. She IS true grit, and the perfect balance between her two male companions. Her sense of morality and her fearlessness combine to make her an inspiring figure. She reacts with restrained emotion, and ultimately comes of age while chasing after her father's murderer. She is not unaware of the death that surrounds her, but she is also not afraid of it. In the end, she kills Cheney, mostly in self-defense, summoning up all of the strength she has, accomplishing the rain of justice that was necessary. I loved her character, and the fact that it was she who killed Cheney, though only because she had to.

Still, I found the end beautiful. Rooster would have continued to wallow in his own filth and disappointment were it not for Mattie, her "quest" and her existence brought him out from his pit and into a strange sort of glory that reaches its pinnacle when he goes into the pit to retrieve Mattie. Mattie, having given Rooster a reason to act or even just care, is now in trouble, and Rooster, despite his exhaustion, his laziness, his out-0f-shape old body, physically carries Mattie to safety when their horse gives out. It is then realized that Mattie simply must live, and not just for Mattie's own sake.

Ahh. The final fifteen minutes or so, from the pit to the epilogue, are sublime-- can I say sublime without sounding incredibly pretentious?-- and weirdly emotional. Mattie and Rooster have saved each other, and Rooster's redemption I thought was so moving without hitting the audience over the head with its poignancy. It's straight-forward stuff, with a little Coen weirdness thrown in. The acting is brilliant and the script is fantastic with stylized, old-fashioned dialogue. Few of the characters ever use contractions, which makes for amusing one-liners ("I do not know this man.") but also a poetic sound. The score is fantastic and a variance on the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" which triggers the redemption idea even further (as Rooster carried Mattie to the subtle piano tune of this hymn, I couldn't help but think that God-- or just goodness, if you will-- can reach anyone. God is everywhere, and in that moment He was a part of Rooster Cogburn, of all the unlikely people. I would have liked more set-up between Rooster and the Ned gang (without this the shoot-out loses some impact), and perhaps a few more stark, lonely shots, but overall I thought True Grit was an amazing movie-- not in the way that hits you upside the head like Inception, but rather one that settles into your mind slowly, bouncing around until you realize that you've seen something both entertaining and artful.

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