True Grit (2010)
Atmosphere is everything to an experience. I remember going to A Tribe Called Quest concert when I was in college and, while the opening act was appropriate — middling, low-key rappers — the middle act was a hard rock band that looked and sounded somewhat like Living Colour (they of the early 90s hit Cult of Personality). There was nothing wrong with their music. But it was at the wrong venue and in front of the wrong people. We were there to see smooth, mellow rappers with a major jazz and blues influence — a group that spun clever lyrics and were anything but hostile.
This rock group performed to an indifferent audience for the first few songs. By the fourth song the booing kicked in. At first the band ignored the tepid reaction. The marijuana haze that dominated the crowd suggested that they would be able to get through their set without pervasive rejection. But as the set continued, the audience snapped out of its buzz and thus began the screaming and throwing of objects. The band didn’t care; they shouted out at us to “open our minds” — and that was only by song eight. They played a few more songs and had to be escorted out behind heavy security. The irony was, the acoustics were so terrible that both the opener and A Tribe Called Quest were practically unintelligible, the bass of the music drowning out the lyrics, and the music poorly mixed and melding together to sound like muffled elevator music. The adversarial rock band sounded considerably better than anyone else, and they might have been successful in front of a different crowd and in a different place.
How does this relate to the Coen Brothers new adaptation of True Grit, with Jeff Bridges now playing the role that earned John Wayne an Oscar?
Well, this is a movie that has an odor: It’s a period Western, and the sweaty, elongated beards, undernourished horses and alcohol-soaked characters provide an atmosphere that the movie can’t possibly live up to. I swear this movie made my nostrils flare; it was caked-on perspiration mixed with a very distinct mustiness. Of course, the smell easily could have been the woman sitting next to me. I wasn’t about to ask her if she was “in character.”
Such faithfulness to clichés, Western or otherwise, are what the Coen brothers enjoy playing around with. Even when they make straight genre pictures — like the film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There — there’s a level of self-mocking, goofiness and loyalty to broad caricature that, depending on your point-of-view, is either clever, irritatingly smug or maybe both. That they can’t make a movie with a straight face can undercut their material (such as the low comedy stuff with Woody Harrelson and Stephen Root in No Country For Old Men) or add to it (such as all of the local color in Fargo which just makes the heinousness of the crimes that much more horrific. Why should these people‘s down-home eccentricities be sullied by careless contract killers?).
Luckily, True Grit is more of a children’s adventure story. So the low-level humor (“I always go backward when I’m backing up”) and the silly mustaches bring to mind more of the authentic period piece — yet also have the parody feel of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In True Grit, the sets are so authentic looking that they look like the clichéd Western towns of the Red Dead Revolver video game series. That’s not the Coens fault; they are being faithful to the source novel. And you can’t be responsible for which material becomes old hat when your film is looked at out of context. And the old-timey feel of True Grit lulls you into a false sense of security. So when a group of onlookers break into a round of applause at a public hanging, it’s the sort of unsettling, macabre touch that is grimly funny.
Every so often, the Coens give us a bit of self-conscious nonsense to appreciate before going back to the task at hand. The task is that of a precocious 14-year-old girl (Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld) paying a grizzled, one-eyed Federal Marshall, Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), to track down the murderer of her father (Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin). So while we chuckle at Rooster and Mattie getting an offer, in the middle of the woods, to buy teeth from a dentist who is wearing a real bearskin, it sets us up for the occasionally brutal violence that Cogburn either takes part in or is nonchalantly amused by. Mattie is too self-assured to be our surrogate. And another Marshall on hand, LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon, is too by-the-book and safe. So we’re placed in the middle, understanding the point of view of each of the three leads. The inclusion of Damon sets up a nod to one of his recent films, The Informant!, where he rambled on endlessly to us about whatever mundane thing came to mind. In this case, Bridges gets the incessant monologues, performed in his indomitable cotton mouth style, while Damon and Steinfeld roll their eyes.
That posits True Grit right in the level of genial, amusing, sentimental; but never too challenging or memorable. It’s a well-made film that occasionally skims over some needed exposition (how does Cogburn know about LaBoeuf, enough to bring him along on the mission without Mattie?… Why is Rooster’s coat completely dry after just being soaked in the river?) And the whereabouts of the characters in Act III are a bit too narratively convenient. But it’s also one of the few period movies to acknowledge the notion of recoil when firing a gun. And Bridges does just enough to with the perpetually gruff and mean Cogburn to differentiate True Grit from a self-satisfied kids’ movie about “that time a young girl came of age amid wacky adventures of murder and revenge.”