Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lively Times (True Grit and Easy A)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

Years ago, when John Waters raised eyebrows by releasing the original, non-musical Hairspray with a PG rating, the notorious Pope-of-Trash explained: "It was the only shock left." In comparison, Joel and Ethan Coen haven't been even remotely as controversial, yet their new True Grit has also been hailed as a near family-friendly (PG-13) departure from their frequently bloody, darkly comic fare. More importantly, as Sheila O'Malley notes, the Coens "find a new way to shock: by being more faithful to the book than the original film version of True Grit ever was; by exalting the Western genre unapologetically; by not being ironic, not even a little bit."

I'll have to take Sheila's word for the Charles Portis novel, never having read it; and I remember little about Henry Hathaway's 1969 screen version beyond John Wayne shooting the bad guys with horse reins between his teeth, despite having seen the film a handful of times. But I have seen every film the Coen brothers have made, and I came out of their True Grit thinking that by embracing the genre they found a powerful way to critique it. And while they've left the irony at the door -- treating the story with affection rather than looking down their noses at it -- they are certainly as playful as ever: You don't create an image of what initially looks like a bear riding a horse without some intention to make mischief.

That scene and others give True Grit a free-associative, episodic quality reminiscent of The Outlaw Josey Wales. Like Eastwood's film, the Coens' features a Confederate veteran of the Civil War out of his element in the postwar era: When we first meet Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn (actually, it's the second time; the first time he's an offscreen voice in an outhouse), he's being hounded in a court of law by an attorney whose shady client lost most of his kin at the receiving end of Rooster's rifle. Cogburn may be a U.S. Marshall but his badge appears essentially worthless, as the attorney catches him in one lie after another. ("Maybe I did move the body!" he growls, not long after assuring he didn't.) Nevertheless, Cogburn's reputation as the "meanest" Marshal in town (not, it is emphasized, the best) impresses young Mattie Ross enough to hire him to track down the man who killed her father and bring him to justice -- i.e., the kind of public hanging she witnesses near the beginning of the film.

All Westerns are, in one way or another, about the end of a freer yet trigger-happy way of life and the dawn of a more "civilized" society that codifies its own brutality. Missing the point of the prosecutor's query, Mattie sees Cogburn's lack of ethics as her ticket to overriding the law's red-taped indifference to capturing Tom Chaney (her father's kiler). The casual racism of that time is also on display when the Native American in the trio to be hanged is the only one not allowed to have any last words, a bag cavalierly put over his head as he starts to speak; or later, when Rooster and Mattie happen upon a pair of Indian children abusing a mule, and Cogburn repeatedly kicks them out of his way. (We get the sense that he'd have done it anyway.) Somewhere in between the precocious adolescent girl and the aging gun-for-hire is LaBoeuf (pronounced "La Beef"), a thirtyish Texas Ranger with faintly ridiculous airs (and jingle-jangling spurs) yet a determination to track down Chaney for a different crime -- the shooting of a Lone Star senator. LaBoeuf and Mattie share the language of educated people, but he and Cogburn are experienced enough have a mutual understanding of the hazard of their quest.

That Mattie doesn't fully grasp the danger she puts herself in -- first hiring a man of questionable character, then insisting she tag along for the ride -- makes True Grit a coming-of-age tale, one where the heroine does not emerge completely unscathed. Superbly played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (who masters the tricky dialogue with the savvy of a Deadwood alum), Mattie is simultaneously intelligent and rash, amusing in her immodesty regarding the former and appealing in her refusal to make excuses for the latter. Oddly, her true opposite number is neither Rooster nor LaBoeuf (and certainly not Josh Brolin's mentally-addled Chaney or Dakin Matthews's exasperated horse trader whom she wears down into returning her father's money); it's gang-leader Lucky Ned Pepper (played, coincidentally, by Barry Pepper), who kidnaps Mattie and threatens to kill her, only to end with almost a mutual understanding for each other's objectives. Their scene together is practically the only time where a conversation with Mattie doesn't turn into a contest of one-upmanship.

As LaBoeuf, Matt Damon has the task of making us forget Glen Campbell in the 1969 film, made easier by the fact that we're all too willing to go along. Damon shows some disturbing new dimensions of his own persona as well: he's introduced watching Mattie in her bedroom, admitting that he considered offering her a kiss while she slept; a few scenes later, he viciously spanks Mattie as punishment for refusing to go away. Later, after a near-fatal encounter with Lucky Ned's gang, he attains a wounded dignity. (Damon is quite touching with the line, "I am considerably diminished.") As Cogburn, Jeff Bridges has the impossible assignment of filling John Wayne's Oscar-winning boots. Wisely, he doesn't try. Bridges portrays Rooster with so many rough edges that it's inevitable that he hurt those who get close to him. Unlike Wayne, he sinks into the harsh landscape rather than rising above it.

His performance is almost too self-effacing, given what the unscrupulous Rooster ultimately does for Mattie at the end. Bridges, though, makes the character's selflessness persuasive, aided by Roger Deakins's unspeakably beautiful cinematography in an already much-discussed race against time under the stars that rivals the note-passing scene in The Ghost Writer as the scene of the year. (Take David Thomson's dubious suggestion to listen to the film with your eyes closed and you'll be missing plenty.) It's an astonishing sequence from a pair of filmmakers whose considerable pleasures have nonetheless always tended be more intellectually tantalizing than soul-stirring.

I thought last year's Brothers Coen effort, A Serious Man, was a masterpiece, a one-of-a-kind half-satirical, half-real-world balancing act; True Grit, while less complex, continues the Coens's progression into addressing art at eye-level, not to mention furthering a hot streak following a creative crisis in the early aughts where they teetered on the verge of becoming irrelevant (e.g., The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty). That they're ascended to the top shelf of contemporary American filmmakers is because, as Steven Santos wrote last year, they "use film to search and probe the world around them and especially themselves." This is evident in a pointed, touching coda in their latest film, when one of two famous outlaws -- now years away from their legendary past -- wistfully tells a middle-aged Mattie about a mutual acquaintance, "We shared some lively times." (The other, less respectful towards her, receives a hilarious upbraiding.) True Grit isn't the best movie the Coen brothers have yet made. But it's the first I'd call magical.

Emma Stone gives such a buoyant performance in the now-on-DVD Easy A that she's destined to give Rosalind Russell and Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard a run for their money in roles like....Wait, this isn't 1935? Alas: before Stone gets pigeonholed in dreary romcom leads and superhero love interests, don't miss her livewire star turn in this smarter-than-average teen comedy as Olive, a smarter-than-average teen whose inevitable lack of popularity takes a turn for the notorious when a bogus rumor that she's an easy lay spreads among the tongue-wagging troglodytes at her high school. The twist in Will Gluck's movie is that Olive embraces the slut stereotype, dressing the part with a "scarlet A" emblazoned on her sleeves (if she wore sleeves).

Easy A updates Hawthorne as imaginatively as Clueless modernized Austen: at one point Olive, with motives at once selfless and avaricious, permits the bullied young men of the school to use her reputation to bolster their manly bona fides in exchange for monetary gifts. Lessons are learned, of course -- but not enough to punish the audience for enjoying a well-played ruse. As an actress, Emma Stone seemed to arrive almost fully formed in memorable supporting parts in Superbad, The House Bunny, and Zombieland. It was Judd Apatow who persuaded the naturally blonde Stone to become a screen redhead, just one quality among many that makes her stand out.

Clashing with everybody from sexually terrified teen evangelicals to macho meatheads, Stone makes Olive at least three steps ahead of everybody -- except for her parents. Played by the wonderfully in-sync Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, Olive's folks calm every crisis through witty gamesmanship. (Putting on a DVD during family movie night, Tucci deadpans, "We can now cross 'See The Bucket List' off our bucket list.") Rather than depicting parents as out-of-touch embarrassments, Easy A is the rare teen comedy that shows a commonality between generations, and an even rarer one to suggest that the younger can actually learn something from the older to get through life.


Adam Zanzie said...

Craig, I'm thinking about posting a third True Grit on my site that will basically refer people to the best reviews on the film I've read... do you mind if I link to this one? I don't know if I'm actually going to go through with another friggin' post on this movie, but I'm tempted to. I feel like there hasn't been enough fruitful discussion on this movie in the blogosphere, and your interpretation is among the few that I admire.

I got to see the movie again, this time with a more open mind: the first time I saw it, I had gone in prepared to look and see if the Coens were going to omit things from the Charles Portis novel that I disliked; because they didn't, I had walked out somewhat irritated--even though I do believe it is a mostly great film. Everybody keeps telling me to shut up regarding my complaints about the way the movie looks at vengeance, but I like what you say here about how Mattie flat-out ignores the dead-on speech of the prosecutor drilling Cogburn because she's more hellbent on hiring somebody who can secure Chaney's demise in the harshest way possible.

See, what's been bugging me for years about True Grit is that so many fans of this story are fans of it because they sympathize with Mattie's bloodlust, which is why I'm thankful to see you looking at it more as the Coens painting a sad portrait of that time. If I'm not quite willing to adopt this opinion myself, it's because I can't tell if this is the Coens being original or if they're just being true to Portis. Then again, I didn't much understand the point of Portis' book to begin with (although the average fan would probably tell me there is no "point". Well, maybe not. In that case, then, why is the novel considered exceptional literature?)

Anyway, bottom line: superb review of the movie. You oughtta read Jake Cole's review if you haven't already; it's similar to yours. As for Easy A, Emma Stone proved she's a born movie-star, but despite that movie's occasional laughs, I didn't think the story was very... funny. It was kind of depressing watching her get humiliated like that the whole time; I bet the material would have worked better as an independent drama, like Blue Car (2002) did.

Craig said...

Thanks, Adam. Feel free to link away. I did read Jake's excellent piece and it's certainly worth a link too.

As I wrote, I've never read the book. And I recall enjoying the '69 "True Grit" without remembering the precise details why. So I'm approaching this film with the primary frame-of-reference being the Coens' body of work. I've seen every one of their films and could be called an admirer, though not a blind fan. I find "True Grit" fascinating in how they manage to pull it out of some very long shadows (Portis and Wayne's) by paring down their own style. There's a deep love in this film that's rare for them - maybe not a love for Portis's book exactly, but certainly for the characters, for their actors, and for the genre. Yet it also contains the Coens' more unflinching aspects, albeit with the unfussed-over subtlety of filmmakers working at the top of their game.

I'll have to take your word for the appeal of "Mattie's bloodlust" to some readers. Possibly for original audiences the Hathaway version too. I detected nothing like that with the audience for this one, though, and no prompting from the Coens. All I felt was trepidation for what Mattie was getting herself into, made palpable by Rooster's unreliability and LaBoeuf's creepiness, by the brutal elements and the harsh landscape. (In an amusing way, Chaney and the Ned Pepper gang are the least of her problems.)


Craig said...

(Part 2)

I thought the consequences of Mattie's shooting Chaney were harsh, but not excessive. The Coens don't lay it on thick, but the cause-and-effect were on-point. I know you felt that they followed Portis too closely and wanted more complexity with Mattie's fate. On the flipside, Kelli Marshall wrote an interesting piece arguing that the Coens didn't follow Portis closely enough, that by eliminating Mattie's success as a businesswomen they emphasized her "spinsterhood" and made her too much a victim. I don't agree with that take either, but it's interesting to read these deeper interpretations on the film's meanings.

As one of those who has razzed you a bit about "True Grit," albeit not as belligerently as others, I hasten to add that I think your perspective is valid. The only mistake, I thought, was the "Will You Be Offended By 'True Grit'?" piece which, despite receiving several comments, may have seemed to some as the kind of leading question that's designed to manufacture controversy, and I think obscured the sincerity of your argument. If you want to keep writing about it, though, keep doing so until you get it out of your system. (I've been there from time to time.) If others want to respond, they will; if they don't, they won't.

The answer, of course, is largely 'No': "True Grit" isn't offending anyone. Indeed, I'm surprised and delighted by its success: as FilmDr said, "It's a weirdly intelligent film to be making money." I can only speculate on why the film is resonating to audiences, but I'm certain it has nothing to do with bloodlust. I think it has the appeal of a return to pure storytelling with colorful, captivating characters, reviving a genre that we didn't know we missed. (This despite the fact that the Coens' infuse what could have been a "family film" with their usual prickliness - e.g., the maiming and death of Little Blackie on that haunting night journey.) For me, it's a movie where the Coens show some new moods and textures, and defines what Matt Seitz meant in the recent Slate Movie Club when he wrote, "Emotion is the gateway drug to all cinephilia."