I won’t go into grisly detail, but this past Saturday, I found myself huddled under a quilt on my couch, near catatonic from a bout of food poisoning. Just lifting the DVD remote required a focused, conscious effort, so you can imagine how I looked upon the prospect of rising from my erstwhile tomb to put a new disc in the player. Thus, in something resembling a continuous loop, I found myself watching the Coen Brothers‘ True Grit about 3 1/2 times in a row. Although I was drifting in and out of cognizance, somewhere late in my second consecutive viewing it occurred to me that decades from now, those unfortunate souls laid low by staphylococcus aureus may still find solace in the eye-patched visage of Jeff Bridges. I don’t think there’s been a Western in nigh on 20 years for which I’d venture a similar prognostication.
Come to think of it, 2011 is actually shaping up to be a banner year for Westerns, not only with Grit, but with the beautifully animated (and startlingly odd) Rango as well as Kelly Reichardt‘s understated frontier drama, Meek’s Cutoff. For a genre that was positively declared dead decades ago, it’s been having an active afterlife. Some would argue that the Coens have flirted with the Western before (No Country for Old Men), but this is their first true entry into a primordial species of film. Compared with their other work, this is an unusually formal, straightforward picture, with a considerably lighter dose of the sour ironies we’ve come to expect from the Brothers. It even manages to come in at a PG-13 rating–though it has flavorful language on par with “Deadwood,” it eschews some of the latter’s spicier ingredients. The writer/director dynamic duo have admitted they were more interested in letting the original language of the book shine through without interference.
Which leads me to offer my own remarks on the Source and its Author. I first became acquainted with the novels of Charles Portis only several months ago, when I picked up his first book, Norwood. Of the five he has written (so far?), I have only one left to tackle, and I’m already feeling the itch to re-read the ones I’ve finished. They are indeed masterworks of comic mundanity. I’m convinced that his work has long influenced the Coens, which is perhaps why so much of True Grit’s dialogue, direct from the 1968 text, sounds like something they might have cooked up. Of course, they aren’t the first to adapt this into film–hardly a year after the book’s release, John Wayne finally got his Oscar for originating Cogburn onscreen. Looking back, the ’69 iteration is still an admirable Western, but as a Portis adaptation it feels a little like fresh wine. And for a story that’s supposed to take place in the Ozarks, it was always hard to ignore the snowy Rockies looming majestically behind Wayne. For their part, the Coens, filming mostly in Texas and New Mexico, found the right sloping hills.
True Grit has a pleasing aesthetic in many other respects. Shot by the Coens’ longtime collaborator Roger Deakins, it reprises the sepia palette they have favored before (No Country For Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou?). The actor’s faces are most often either illuminated by firelight or silhouetted by snow. Frankly, I’m pretty much smitten with the sound design–I can’t remember the last time a movie had wind that sounded this cinematic. Watching this movie is the next best thing to a horseback camping trip in Wyoming.
If I had my way, I’d have Colin Firth and Jeff Bridges swap their Oscars–Firth should have won for A Single Man, and Bridges had a more iconic performance here than in Crazy Heart. Besides, it would have just been too perfect if Rooster Cogburn became the role that guaranteed a statue. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is indeed something to behold as Mattie, the articulate, stubborn penny-pincher who narrates the tale. And Matt Damon, as the strutting Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, has never been funnier. Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, the villains, could have rested on their laurels and let their dental prosthetics do all the work, but they add just the right measures of whine and spit to the mix.
So watch True Grit. And the other True Grit, too. And read Charles Portis–you won’t be sorry, you can thank me later. And long live the Western. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 6/7/11