True Grit, 5/5

After slacking off during 2010, I’m going to try my darnedest to get into the habit of reviewing the movies I see. Up to bat first: True Grit starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and amazing newcomer Hailee Steinfled:

There is an awful lot to love about True Grit. A lot.

I’ve never seen the original 1969 version starring John Wayne (fun fact: he shares a birthday with Megan), but if the re-make by Joel and Ethan Coen is this good, the original is officially at the top of my to-rent list.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a bright and doggedly brave 13-year-old who is determined to settle the affairs of her murdered father and see to it that “That Tom Chaney” is brought to justice. I once served as a judge of home school debate tournament. Mattie reminds me of those annoyingly smart, poised and eloquent over-achievers who can speak Latin and run mental circles around us public school dolts, only to switch sides in the middle of the debate and still come away with the win. Except Mattie didn’t have frizzy red hair, and those home schoolers probably wouldn’t have set out on horseback in hot pursuit of a murderer into uncharted Indian Territory (shout out to Oklahoma!) with Jeff Bridges while wearing her dead father’s over-sized belt. Just sayin’.

Mattie hires Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) for the job, a smelly, grizzled caricature of a man whom, she has been assured, has “grit.” There couldn’t be a better word for Jeff Bridges. He has grit alright. As a U.S. Marshall and part-time bounty hunter, he’s killed 23 men, most of whom deserved it. He wears an eye patch and drinks more whiskey in a day than I do water. But, seeing as he has the aforementioned “grit,” he’ll (probably) get the job done. His wet, growling voice is a joy to listen to, even if I didn’t catch 75 percent of his dialog in the movie. I can’t say he’s better than John Wayne’s Rooster, but I have a hard time imaging how he could be less than equal. Cogburn isn’t a “good man” and he doesn’t necessarily get redeemed at the conclusion, but he most certainly has grit.

Also in the hunt is Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a cow-licked man more Don Knotts than Chuck Norris. He’s a loud mouth, a braggart, and though he’s talented at tracking down his man, he doesn’t have the “grit” of Cogburn and he knows it. Damon plays him with just the right amount of creepiness and frustration. A scene where he gets shot and nearly loses his tongue is funny not because of the violence, but because his exasperation at the insult.

This is a dramatic Western, but make no mistake, it’s quite funny at times. When we finally meet That Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), he is genuinely amused at the prospect that he’s been tracked so far by such a little girl, such much so that it’s a little endearing. When Rooster (remind me to name my first-born “Rooster”*) recounts his first two marriages to Mattie – seemingly without being asked – I laughed out loud.

The character of Mattie is marvelously fun to cheer for and Steinfeld earns her keep alongside her intimidating co-stars as they follow Chaney into Indian Territory. Her buttoned up, proper demeanor is the perfect foil to the booze-soaked grime that is Cogburn, even though we all know they’ll learn to respect and rely on each other. She wears dresses and high collars, but isn’t afraid to order her horse into the river or climb a tree to cut down a hanged man. She knows how to roll a cigarette, but would never smoke one herself.

Allow me a slight digression from the review: Linguistically, this is an endlessly fascinating movie.

Most every character speaks as you would expect, in uneducated hillbilly jargon of simple, poor folks that are a staple of every Western. And yet, they are very precise in their syntax and words. There isn’t a single contraction in this movie: Every drunk’s “I’m” is a very delicate “I am”; every “No, I won’t” from the mouth of that dirty, unwashed cad what killed my pa is a very formal-sounding “No, I will not”; when Cogburn examines a dead body, he pronounces a startlingly cold, “I do not know this man.” Every “-ing” is fully formed, and none are chopped into “-in’.” There are no short, incomplete sentences. Even the villains with their horrible, horrible teeth speak in perfect subject-verb-object thoughts.

What I do not know (see, I am doing it now) is if this is really the way they spoke in 1870s Arkansas, thus indicting modern America’s lazy and decaying speech or if it is merely a clever Coen Brothers story-telling device: something on which to hang the contrast of that porcelain verbiage with the true grit  of the movie’s coarse and violent details (hey, that was the name of the movie!). (Here, I pause to admit that a clearer indictment of America’s lazy and decaying speech is the previous sentence: 73 words and two unnecessary parenthetical statements. 10 bonus points to the first one to diagram that sentence!)

In a strangely lengthy scene, we see a Cogburn testifying during a trial. The back and forth word-parsing of the attorneys and Cogburn is a pure delight, a tango between truth and not-quite-a-lie. Cogburn is a man who prefers to choose his shots carefully instead of his words, so watching him obviously bored in this all-talk, no-action setting is yet another fascinating study in contrasts. Then you have the elevated speeches of the fantastic Mattie. Steinfeld inhabits her role perfectly in all aspects, but it’s in her delivery of her lines that you see her truly shine. Her bargaining back-and-forth with a horse trader is a clinic in rhetoric and logic that would make Cicero blush with shame. It’s in scenes like this one that we more and more that the grit of the movie’s title is obviously meant to be her, and not the rugged U.S. Marshall.

Finally, True Grit has a fantastic soundtrack of languid yet very earnest lone church piano – playing mostly hymns (again, we’re presented with a striking contrast). Does the lyrical melody of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” enhance the sight of a U.S. Marshall gripping his horse’s reins in his teeth and charging against four men ruthless killers, six-shooters a-blazin’? Yes. Yes it does. Seriously, click play and listen to this stripped-down magic:

Marvelous as it is, True Grit is flawed. The opening and closing narration doesn’t quite match the tone of the rest of the movie. The closing scene, where we catch up with Mattie 25 years later is just, well, it’s odd. I didn’t need it, and the Coen brothers could (and should) have come up with a more fitting end to what is otherwise a stellar movie.

* The cool factor of the first name “Rooster” has been irreparably sullied by Matthew McConaughey’s older brother. Therefor, I will be naming my firstborn “Cogburn.” “Cog” for short.

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