Sunday, December 26, 2010

true grit

I posted recently about the phrase "bust a cap" occurring in the original 1969 John Wayne movie True Grit. I got a chance to see the new Coen Bros version and my reactions are worth airing...or not, you decide...

First, it turns out the phrase true grit has a storied history in the history of English letters:


But this review is destined to be of the non-linguistic kind...

I also had the chance to re-watch the original John Wayne version just a couple days before watching the new one. While it may be the case that this is a bit unfair because it means the recent version is asked to live up to the original is some ways, nonetheless, it is instructive (insofar as it does NOT). I hereby forgive the Coen Bros for not watching the original again in preparation for their version. Surely this would have scuttled their project.

Let me make it clear that the individual performances in the Coen Bros movie alone make it worth watching. Each actor is given great opportunity to breath life into their character and I respect the Coen Bros for allowing that. They are truly dedicated to the fine craft of acting and I enjoyed watching their version of True Grit. Frankly, I could watch Jeff Bridges eat oatmeal and be amazed at how weird and wonderfully he did it.

Nonetheless, my primary complaint is devastating: the new Coen Bros version lacks the basic narrative structure and emotional depth that made the original so fundamentally enjoyable and satisfying. For the record, I have never read the novel, so I have no clue what it says and the Coen Bros based their new version entirely on that. However, I can say that one of the most deeply satisfying elements of the John Wayne movie is the development of the relationships that evolve between the child Mattie Ross, the drunken but courageous Rooster Cogburn, and the goofy, but basically decent La Boeuf. Throughout the original movie, those three characters find a way to forge a sort of dysfunctional, yet basically good and meaningful family unit between them. This family unit is completely absent from the new version. And I missed it.

One of the most touching and important moments of the original movie involves Rooster finally opening up to Mattie about his past and his wife and son while the two sit and wait for Ned Pepper's gang to arrive. This scene reveals Rooster's humanity and deeply emotional character. It is this scene that helps forge a familial bond, almost like an uncle/niece relationship, between Rooster and Mattie. And this deep relationship is played out for the rest of the movie. Developing this scene during a crucial moment of patience and waiting is pure narrative brilliance. Yet, the Coen Bros took this and turned it into camp and parody. The lines about his wife and son are basically thrown away in a drunken mumbling as his horse barely manages to contain his heavy frame while they trod along meaninglessly. What should be a deeply emotional connection forged in a tense moment of expectation becomes slapstick and meaningless. Why throw this away?

I would need a copy of the new film to point out all of the moments lacking narrative continuity, but here are a few to suffice:

Late in both movies, Mattie stumbles upon her nemesis Tom Chaney while gathering water from a river. In the original film, the proximity of Ned Pepper's gang is made clear and ominous. The likelihood that she would find trouble while going for water is made plain. But in the new version, it plays out like some wildly random coincidence. The ending of both movies requires these events to take place, but the original movie at least gives us some reasons behind the events, not just chaos and random nothingness.

Ned Pepper is a critical character in the story. In the original movie, the truly great actor Robert Duvall is given the chance to give the man some decency and honor. He is a killer, yes, but he also saves Mattie's life, despite claiming to be willing to end it. In fact, it is Ned Pepper, more than anyone else (in the original), who keeps Mattie alive (until the snake-hole scene at least). Robert Duvall was given the opportunity to create a Ned Pepper who is full and complex. In the Coen Bros version the actor Barry Pepper (seriously, no joke, that's his name, weird right?) is barely a grubby and dirty (really seriously dirty, nasty dirty, disgustingly dirty...) killer. The pathos of Ned Pepper is gone.

By far, the most iconic moment of the original movie is the scene where Rooster takes the reigns of his horse in his mouth and single handedly draws down against four armed opponents. This is one of the greatest moments of American Western lore, involving the single greatest actor of American Western mythology. It is truly a moment of cinematic greatness.  Leading up to this, Rooster describes a previous moment in his storied life much like this (earlier in both films) and it forms a crucial part of his legend and character. When the ultimate moment arrives in the original version, it is a moment of destiny, built up by the dialogue and scenes that have come before it. But in the Coen Bros version, the whole raison d'etre has been obscured by mumbling and misdirection. It's almost as if this were every bit as random as everything else that came before it. You may well argue that randomeness and chaos is in fact the Coen Bros' raison d'etre, and I can't argue against that. Fair enough. But then, why bother making a movie about a story for which destiny and courage is so crucial a factor? Without the great inevitable showdown of Rooster's grit against the despots' manpower, well, why make this movie at all? If you believe in pure chaos, fine, make No Country For Old Men over and over, got it. That makes sense. That's coherent. But why take this novel and make a movie? If your primary goal as movie makers is to take previous material well loved by the public and trash it for your own philosophical gain, that's just pure douchebaggery, so screw you Joel and Ethan.

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