CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: TRUE GRIT (2010)
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: The back room of a general store. The proprietor tries to keep MICHAEL ARRUDA from going back there, but he pushes on. In the room, they encounter empty whiskey bottles on the floor, and LL SOARES asleep among the inventory. The proprietor lifts his arms in defeat and leaves)
MA: Wake up, you old codger, we’ve got a movie to review.
LS: Saints and tarnation! Can’t a man be allowed to sleep the sleep of the dead even one day a year? I paid that proprietor dearly to prevent anyone from coming back here and disturbing my slumber. How the hell did you find me?
MA (lifts an empty whisky bottle and sniffs): It wasn’t too hard. Wake up. We’ve got a movie to review.
LS: Dammit, Michael. It’s Christmas Eve. Can’t you let a brother sleep late for once?
MA: It was your idea to review this one. Up and Adam! (He kicks the steamer trunk LS is sleeping in)
MA: Come on. I have family members to visit. Gifts to hand out…..
LS (interrupts): Houses to haunt. I know, I know.
(LS jumps up, covered in old, worn long underwear and pulls his pants on)
MA: What’s with the eye patch?
LS: I was raising a bottle and accidentally poked myself in the eye. Do you mind?
MA: Eye don’t mind at all, yuk, yuk!
LS: Oh, get stuffed. We’ve got a movie to review, don’t we?
MA (smiles): Yes, we do! And eye do believe it’s your turn to start.
LS: You’re going to need an eye patch of your own in a minute! Okay, I’ll start it then.
TRUE GRIT is the new movie by the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan of course, and I was really looking forward to this one. Based on the classic novel by Charles Portis, some of you pardners might remember that it was filmed once before, by director Henry Hathaway, with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, in 1969. It was the only movie to get Wayne a coveted Oscar statue. But some people have complained that the Hathaway/Wayne version took some liberties with the source material. The Coens aim to rectify this by adhering closer to the novel. Of course, I can’t tell you if they succeeded in doing this. I haven’t read the book.
MA: Neither have I. (LS glares at him.) What? I said “I”, not eye!
LS: Aye. While Wayne was not the most talented of his brethren – there were certainly other leading men of his generation with more range and actorly gifts – he did a great job with the character of Rooster Cogburn (as his Oscar clearly illustrates), and I’m a big fan of the original film. So I wasn’t sure if it really needed to be remade.
But the Coen Brothers, in their infinite wisdom, deemed it so. So who am I to argue? I donned my winter attire and went out to the movie palace to partake of their cinematic Christmas gift. And I have come away with mixed feelings about the new TRUE GRIT.
I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the movie, because I did. I thought it was extremely well-made and well acted. I’m just not sure if I appreciated the tone all that much.
MA: Really? Then I’m eager to hear what you have to say, because for the most part, I enjoyed the tone of this one. I didn’t have a problem with this movie until its ending, which I found anticlimactic. Why are endings so challenging for filmmakers these days? Don’t answer that now. Go on with your thoughts about tone. I’m interested.
LS: Let’s dissect this pickled frog, shall we?
The story is mainly about poor Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). Her father, a farmer, was shot to death by a hired hand named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who also robbed him and fled the scene. Mattie is a serious, determined girl, and all of 14 years old. She has come to town to have her father’s coffin shipped back home and to secretly arrange for vengeance upon her father’s killer. When she is told it is unlikely that the killer will be apprehended – the man has fled to “Indian Territory” (which will someday be called Oklahoma) and there’s a shortage of federal marshals to pursue him – Mattie takes it into her own hands to hire a marshal directly, with money in hand, to make sure the job gets done. Of the possible lawmen to hire, Mattie chooses Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), because he has “true grit” and is known for not bringing them in alive (he usually kills the men he pursues). Since she wants her father’s killer dead, she is overjoyed to find such an ornery and foul-tempered brute to do the job. When she first spies Cogburn, testifying at a trial about men he’d shot, she knows she has made the right choice in the matter.
And so she goes about resolving some of her father’s business to acquire the money, and hires Cogburn to do the deed. Of course, Cogburn is also a whiskey-drinking drunkard as well as a man of the law, so it’s tough to get him motivated at first. But he comes around quickly enough. One of her demands in their exchange of money, however, is that she has to go along on the journey. Her intention being to kill the man himself when they find him, with her father’s own gun, which she has collected from the boarding house he stayed at when he was last alive.
The rest of the film recounts their journey to find the elusive Chaney and bring him to justice. The polecat has taken up with the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang. Cogburn aims to take Ned in tandem, to collect a reward for his hide as well.
MA: And I enjoyed this tale of the journey. It’s what happens once they find good old Mr. Chaney that I have trouble with. By the way, don’t forget Matt Damon….
LS: Ah, yes. Mr. Damon portrays a Texas Ranger by the name of LeBoeuf (which he pronounces “LaBeef”). LeBeouf has been trailing Chaney for a while now, attempting to take him back to Texas for a sizable reward. It seems Chaney had been up to mischief in that state as well, killing a Senator and his dog, and LeBoeuf plans to claim the bounty. But he hasn’t had much luck and seeks to throw in his lot in with Mattie and Cogburn, because I guess he believes the more, the merrier. Besides, Cogburn knows the Indian country well and would at least provide a useful guide for LeBeouf. He even cuts the man in for a percentage of the reward. Both men see Mattie as a complication, a thorn in their respective hides, but she proves she is more than capable of keeping up with them.
And so, our merry band departs Arkansas, hot on the trail of Tom Chaney.
The acting here is all top-notch. Starting with Steinfeld, who is pretty much astounding in her role.
MA: She is amazing, no doubt about it. Her performance in TRUE GRIT is among my favorite parts of the movie.
LS: The young girl plays a no-nonsense, ultra-serious character who will not back down in her quest. I don’t think she cracks a smile once in this movie, and she takes charge of every situation she is in with little or no effort. TRUE GRIT is really her story, and Steinfeld is more than up for the job. Her performance is a powder keg here, and I hope she gets nominated for an Oscar herself.
MA: She’s definitely worthy of an Oscar.
LS: Jeff Bridges, at this point in his career, has become almost as iconic as John Wayne was when he portrayed Rooster Cogburn.
MA: Hold your horses, there, pardner! That would be emphasis on “almost.” I love Jeff Bridges just as much as the next guy—
NEXT GUY: I take offense at that comment. I don’t love Jeff Bridges at all!
MA: Sorry. I thought I was just using an expression.
NEXT GUY: You should be more careful with what you say.
LS: Scram, you smelly varmint!
(NEXT GUY exits.)
MA: As I was saying, I’m a big fan of Bridges, but he’s nowhere near to the icon that was John Wayne. Wayne’s one of the all time biggest stars in film history. And even though Wayne over the course of his career didn’t show a lot of range—as he tended to play himself over and over— he was damn good at it. I’ve become a huge Wayne fan as I’ve gotten older.
LS: Be that as it may, Bridges is the superior actor.
MA: Yes, I would agree with that.
LS: Like I was saying, I love this guy like a second cousin—
NEXT GUY: Better you than me.
LS: Go away!
But I do have some bones to pick with Bridges’ performance here. First of all, the man speaks in such a gruff, mutter, that in some scenes I wasn’t 100% sure what was being said. But, thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often. My other objection is that at times he is portrayed as a bit of an oaf, an idiot, for the sake of comic relief in a story of revenge, and that wasn’t much to my liking. A couple of jokes at his expense is one thing, but there are parts of this film where I thought Cogburn came close to becoming a joke.
MA: I didn’t think he was a joke, but if you’re thinking of the scene where he tries to show off his shooting abilities to LeBoeuf and Mattie Ross, and he’s obviously drunk and at that time not a very good shot, yes, that scene was a little annoying. But I don’t remember there being much more than that.
LS: Yes, that scene where he tries to shoot items he throws up into the sky to impress Mr. LeBeouf becomes rather comical at Cogburn’s expense, but he redeems himself in a true crisis. My problem is how Cogburn is portrayed as pretty much a buffoon throughout he tale – constantly blathering on about silly details of his life like an old hen, shouting when he’s better off using stealth, etc. This is more the fault of the screenwriting than the acting, however, and Bridges does his best to keep the character both noble and oblivious throughout, despite the drunken binges and such.
MA: I really enjoyed Bridges a lot in this movie. As powerful as Hallee Steinfeld was in this film as Mattie Ross, I thought Bridges was equally as good as Rooster Cogburn. I thought both their performances were among the best I’ve seen this year. Bridges was certainly more satisfying here in TRUE GRIT than he was in last week’s TRON: LEGACY.
LS: As many people may know, I’m not a big Matt Damon fan. In some films his earnestness and resemblance to Howdy Doody have made it difficult for me to take him seriously, but he continues to wash away that initial reaction and prove himself a decent enough actor. In TRUE GRIT, Damon is clearly the comic relief character (or is that Cogburn?), who thinks he is much smarter than he truly is. And I think he’s an improvement over Glenn Campbell, who played the same role in the 1969 version.
Of course, Mattie shows both men up for the fools they are. Damon’s character also redeems himself when he needs to. But two fools in one tragedy seems a bit overdone to me, even if this were a work by Billy Shakespeare.
MA: I usually enjoy Damon a lot, but I thought he was just OK here. I didn’t find LeBoeuf particularly compelling or all that enjoyable. I’ve seen Damon deliver some riveting performances, taking a role and making it his own. That’s not quite the case here. LeBoef is Le-Boring.
LS: Josh Brolin plays Chaney, when we finally meet him, as a whiny man-child, not much worth the time spent pursuing him, and not much of an adversary at all, which I guess is the point, but I found his character to be a bit grating. Which is odd, since I’m usually such a big fan of Brolin’s.
MA: I wouldn’t know. Brolin’s screen time here is ridiculously brief, it’s flippin annoying! It’s one of the problems I have with this movie. The three main characters spend all this time tracking down Chaney, and then when they find him, it’s over so quickly.
I actually thought Brolin was fine. I wish he had had more of a part. As it stands now, blink and you might miss him.
LS: You’re exaggerating again.
MA: I know, but I’m making the point that he’s not in this thing much. Often, my favorite part of a movie is its villain. Tom Chaney isn’t much of a villain. And why not? Because we don’t get to know him.
LS: Barry Pepper is actually much better in his small role as outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper. He looks and acts as battle-worn as his character should be, and deserved more screen time.
MA: Yes, he does. TRUE GRIT is obviously the story of Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn, and as such, the movie succeeds. I enjoyed their story immensely, but the movie as a whole would have been better had more time and care been given to the villains in the story as well.
LS: Agreed. I liked this movie a lot. I thought it was very well-done, and I think Steinfeld steals every scene she is in. But my complaint is with the tone of these proceedings. As I mentioned before, there’s a bit too much comic relief in a story that deserves more introspection. Sure, Cogburn is a drunk and a blowhard, but if he’s been so successful at his job, he must be much more of professional killer than we are led to believe here. A bit more clenched-teeth mercilessness in the face of adversity would have been nice. It’s like the movie starts with telling us his reputation as a cold-blooded bringer of vengeance and then the reality is that he’s a clown. Which is all well and good, but I would have been happier to see more of his rattlesnake fangs.
A scene in a shack where one man loses his fingers and another has his head blown off was more to my liking – an intense scene that goes from casualness to violence in the blink of an eye, but there’s not much else like that to be seen here. Even if you were to have one eyehole covered in a patch, as Rooster does.
MA: A great scene! One of my favorite scenes of the movie, very intense! I wish the ending had been as intense as this scene!
LS: Are you referring to an absurd bit of storytelling toward the end where Cogburn rides a horse to death to get a snake-bitten Mattie to a doctor, and once the horse dies, he carries her miles further in the snow to their destination? Is this the scene you didn’t like? Because you’re right, it’s kind of dumb.
MA: No, I was actually referring to the confrontation— or lack thereof— between our good guys and Tom Chaney, but you’re right about the rushing to the doctor scene. I mean, I was fine with it until the horse dies and Cogburn picks up Mattie and carries her across the countryside. I think after a few yards he would have passed out, but he carries her for miles! Yeah, right.
LS: Look, I love the Coen Brothers to death, and I wanted to love this movie, but it’s not in the same wheelhouse as films like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) and FARGO (1996), which better knew how to temper their laughs and grimaces of pain. Actually, I don’t remember laughing much in NO COUNTRY at all, which is probably why it worked so well for me. In these grim scenarios, laughing in the face of reaper is often better served in small doses, unless you’re going to create a virtuoso work of absurdity like my favorite of their films, THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), in which the tone suits its material perfectly.
MA: I’m hot and cold with the Coen Brothers. While I enjoyed NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and FARGO, I didn’t enjoy BURN AFTER READING (2008) all that much. Oddly, one of my favorite movies of theirs is the quirky O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? (2000).
LS: And there you have it, my review of TRUE GRIT. I give it three and a half knives. Not the full four of an exceptional film, but close. And certainly not the five knives of a masterpiece. The Coens have made a couple of films that approach greatness in their oeuvre, but this one falls a bit short for me.
MA: Me, too. Actually, for most of this movie, I was enjoying it a lot, and it was approaching four knife status. However, the ending took care of that.
I thought the pacing to TRUE GRIT was slow and deliberate, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I was completely wrapped up with Mattie Ross’ and Rooster Cogburn’s story, and even though this film of their journey together took its time, I enjoyed every minute of it.
There were lots of enjoyable scenes. You already mentioned my favorite, the “finger slicing scene,” but I also enjoyed the sequence where they come across the hanging body from the tall tree branch. I loved the small details, like the sound effects of the bird chomping on the corpse’s face.
I enjoyed the sequence where they met the Bear Man. It was very mysterious and captivating.
I thought the shoot out following the “finger slicing” scene was also rather intense and well done.
Everything up until the ending was excellent. Up until the ending, TRUE GRIT is a compelling western, well-made, and totally engrossing.
But the conclusion lacks oomph; it’s anticlimactic. What should have been a dramatic confrontation between Rooster Cogburn and Tom Chaney never happens. This is because, ultimately, TRUE GRIT is a character study of Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn. It’s not a chase movie, or an action picture about the pursuit of an evil bad guy. The evil bad guy is nothing more than an afterthought here.
Does this ruin the movie? Absolutely not! It just prevents it, in my book, anyway, from completing the deal and achieving 4 knife status.
As a result, I give TRUE GRIT three knives.
LS: Fine. Some might say that TRUE GRIT is a bit off the beaten path for us, since it’s not horror. But it is a genre film—that genre being of the Western persuasion. Besides, there were mighty slim pickins’ this month for horror films. And as this year went on, we did seem to be branching out a bit in other territories…much like Rooster Cogburn and his crew.
And now that you’ve wrung this review from me, Michael, can I please go back to my slumber?
MA: Of course. I’ve got to get going anyway. I have to go scare— I mean, visit some relatives today.
(Door opens behind MA. A young 14 year-old girl enters the room.)
GIRL: Are you two the Cinema Knife Fighters?
MA & LS: Yeah.
GIRL: A bad man shot a lousy movie about my daddy. I’m here to clear his name. Will you review the movie and tell the truth about my daddy?
MA: Your daddy’s name isn’t Edward Cullen, is it?
MA: Good, then I’ll see the movie.
LS (exasperated): I just want to sleep, dag gum it! Can’t you handle this one yourself, Arruda?
MA: You can sleep all you want—after we help this girl. Now, tell us about this movie.
GIRL: Well, first of all, it’s all lies, and second—-.
(As girl tells her story, the camera pans away, exits through window of general store, and in a wide crane shot pulls away, revealing saddled horses hitched to the store and a snowy surrounding landscape, and we hear LS shouting, “Damn it, where’s that whiskey bottle I was saving for Christmas?” followed by the crack of a glass bottle shattering, and MA saying, “There ‘tis.”)
© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gave TRUE GRIT – three knives.
LL Soares gave TRUE GRIT – three and a half knives