Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Few Words on "Grit"

To start with, I did see the 1969 version of True Grit when it first played in theaters. Considering I was 13 at the time, I only recall a few things from the film, such as the title song performed by Glen Campbell, John Wayne with his eyepatch and Kim Darby as Mattie not using a single contraction in her speech (come to think of it, that's a decent amount to remember after 40 years, I guess.)

So I went into the Coen brothers' remake of this film with open eyes; I could judge this film on its own. My verdict? Outstanding photography, a very good screenplay, but only so-so direction. This is certainly watchable, but except for the last 30 minutes or so, hardly compelling. After seeing the film, you wonder why the brothers bothered remaking this particular piece of work.

It's a pretty straightforward piece of entertainment, at least in terms of the Coens (straightforward for Hollywood these days is usually pretty lame, so I at least give the brothers credit for giving us films that don't insult our intelligence). By now, everyone must know the storyline of how 14 year-old Mattie Ross turns to US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (cranky, lumbersome Rooster Cogburn) to find the man who killed her father. I do like the way the screenplay is organized here as first we are introduced to Mattie (wonderfully played by 13 year-old Hailee Steinfeld) and her stubborn ways (nicely spelled out in a lengthy scene where she negotiates a fee for her losses) and then to Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in a typical charming performance) and his rough and tumble manners (the initial view we have of Cogburn is on a witness stand; his answers and muffled delivery are a nice insight into his character).

But after this opening, things tend to move along from point A to point B in a fairly conventional manner. That might work for some film makers, but one would hardly make the argument that the Coen brothers are conventional. The plot lines are all eventually tied up, but I expected more, especially visually. I say that even as I marvel once again at the remarkable work turned in by director of photography Roger Deakins, who has been the filmmakers' cinematographer since 1991. Is there a more accomplished cinematographer working today? Certainly no one captures low light photography better than Deakins and this visualization is exactly what this story of revenge and murder call for. It's also interesting to see the desaturation of colors in the outdoors scenes, certainly a change of pace from the usual brightly lit skies of a typical Western.

The last half-hour of this film is captivating, as the direction improves, especially in a visual sense. The scene where Rooster takes Mattie for medical help on horseback is quite remarkable; under a star-filled sky, the two characters take on an otherworldly identity. This is one of the most memorable images from any film by the Coens; it's a shame that they couldn't provide more moments such as this in this film. (There is also a marvelous shot of the couple on horseback that leads into the nighttime action, as we see them in silhouette under the setting sun.)

Given the theme of redemption, you understand why the Coens became involved in this project. But at the end of the day, you wonder what drew them to this particular work. It's got it's moments and it's always a pleasure to look at, but it just doesn't have the inventive moments of their best work. They've shown their own true grit often in the past - too bad more of it isn't on display on this occasion.

P.S. I'm quite certain that Roger Deakins will once again be nominated for an Academy Award for his work on this film. If this does indeed happen, it will be his ninth nod - he has yet to win an Oscar. He will, I am happy to report, receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) in 2011.

I am also predicting an Oscar nomination for Hailee Steinfeld for Best Supporing Actress - she truly deserves it!


  1. "It's got it's moments and it's always a pleasure to look at, but it just doesn't have the inventive moments of their best work."

    Totally agree with you here. I also agree that the midnight ride sequence is a memorable piece of filmmaking.

    Like you, I saw the original when it came out - I was 17 - and I found that version much more gripping and emotionally engaging than the Coens' version.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    One of these days, I'm going to have to see the original version again!

  3. I caught part of True Grit on cable the other day and can see why Wayne got an award for it. I'm a fan of the Coen Brothers, so I'm looking forward to what they do with a western.