The Coen Brothers are back, once again adapting a Western novel with a wistful tone and quotable turns of phrase. Don’t mistake this film for an adaptation of the 1969 film that won John Wayne his only Oscar. The Coens did not examine that film at all (they say). Instead, they returned to the book by Charles Portis and don’t ask me how closely they followed it, because I haven’t read it.
I greatly enjoyed True Grit, especially the performance by Jeff Bridges. It’s too bad he just won an Oscar with Crazy Heart for playing a washed-up old drunk whose relationship with an innocent child gives him one last shot at redemption, because he might otherwise win this year. The “child” in this movie is 14-year-old Mattie Ross, played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, a pig-headed lass intent on seeing her father’s killer brought to justice. She and Bridges’ character, “Rooster” Cogburn, set out into the wild Chocktaw nation with a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf played by Matt Damon to capture the fugitive Tom Chancey (Josh Brolin).
This being a movie written, directed and edited by the Joel and Ethan Coen, all of the supporting performances are finely-drawn and the script crackles with memorable verbiage. It is textbook in the way a casual aside about a sinkhole, or a joke about the threat of snakes will later return to pay off. (And if you’re keeping score, the bottle left on the tree branch doesn’t pay off — at least that I saw.) In fact, there is really only one odd interlude in the film, which is a conversation with a country dentist dressed in a bear hide, to let you know this is a film from the cock-eyed perspective of the brothers who gave us The Big Lebowski.
As much as I despised the endings of previous Coen outings No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man, those films admitted more depth than True Grit has much chance to do, it being such a conventional story. Without being specific, I do not much care for the ending of True Grit either, which seems to add very little to what we already know about the characters, although it does close out the wistful ‘flashback’ frame.
In any case, the film is worth seeing alone for the scene where Mattie wakes up to find LaBeouf in her bedroom. The dialogue in this scene is as good as anything in the Coen canon. Roger Deakins’ cinematography, while not quite reaching the lyric heights he achieved in The Assassination of Jesse James, still is quite lovely, especially those scenes which use fire as a light source. The night exteriors motivated by moonlight looked artificial, as did the climactic night ride montage. I do not know if this was intentional. Carter Burwell’s score did not particularly strike me one way or another, other than it seemed to add an epic quality to the film, which was much appreciated, and to over-underline some emotional moments, which was less appreciated. I did love the credits song, Iris DeMint singing “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms“.
If the Oscar race this year is lead by The King’s Speech (reviewed below) and The Social Network, I wouldn’t discount True Grit as a dark horse candidate. The aging Academy voting-block loves stories about old people (even ones with as reprehensible a backstory as participating in Quantrill’s Raid) achieving redemption. In a way, it is like a classier version of the movie RED, which was also an old-man fantasy. It is a fine film, but it seems to me that the Coens will be penalized in awards voting, since they are clearly capable of better.
The King’s Speech is a very good, very conventional story of a man overcoming a disability to succeed. It is enhanced by the fact that that man is a prince, later King George VI and that the person he must fight, at the end of the film, through spoken words, is none other than Adolf Hitler.
I had thought that world cinema had exhausted the store of plots in which Hitler is the villain, but this film cleverly found a new one: King George’s stammer vs. Hitler’s eloquence. The Hitler bit is actually a very small part of the film. It is more about the strong-willed Elizabeth (later known as the Queen Mum, played by Helena Bonham-Carter) pushing her husband Albert to confront his stammer with the unconventional approaches offered by an Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush).
I was worried going in because it was directed by Tom Hooper, who baffled me with the canted angles he salted into the HBO John Adams mini-series. In King’s speech Hooper and his d.p., Danny Cohen, do use some extreme lens choices, but they always seemed well-supported by the story and the emotional states of the characters.
Speaking of emotional states, both Firth and Rush are in fine form, although I found the inconsistencies in Rush’s character’s disdain for royalty to be one of the flaws of an otherwise well-written script (David Seidler, who originated the story as a stage play).
The movie is entertaining, uplifting, and — surprisingly for an independent film that almost fell through due to difficulties in finding funding — handsomely produced. I believe conventional wisdom is right to place this as a front-runner for Best Picture. After all, they have to balance slumdog millionaires with stammering kajillionaires.
Sadly, there will be no more King’s Speeches coming out of Britain for a while, as it was funded in part by the UK Film Council, which got the axe in the latest round of cuts by the new coalition government. So, go see the kind of film that is unlikely to be made again and likely to win awards. I would not set expectations too high; the film is exactly what the trailer shows. But it is just as good as the trailer, and gratefully
lacks the cliched ‘slow clap’ that is shown therein less schmaltzy.