Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Rooster's Come to Snuff

Expectations are a killer. The Coen Brothers have been on quite a tear for a few years now, cranking out a new movie every November or December. Each has been wildly different but enormously successful with what it's trying to do. No Country for Old Men was a grim thriller, Burn After Reading a black-humored spy parody, A Serious Man a Book of Job tale played for mordant laughter. Pessimism has been one of the unifying characteristics of each film, as well as an unconventional ending that thwarts the audience's assumptions with a conscious effort bordering on contempt. A Serious Man in particular, the first time I saw it, left me thinking a reel was missing. True Grit, the Coens' latest effort, doesn't go nearly so far, and four hours later I still can't decide how good or bad that is.

I can't speak of the assumptions that come with the film as an adaptation of a book that was previously the basis of an acclaimed John Wayne piece, since I have not read or seen either, but there is plenty to be said just viewing the movie on its own terms.

Fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) comes town to claim the body of her father, recently slain by the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has fled into Native American territory. When she finds that law enforcement is going to do nothing to bring him to justice, she opts to hire the most ruthless U.S. Marshall she can find, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and sets off with him and a Texas Ranger already on Chaney's trail, La Boeuf (Matt Damon), to bring him to justice.

Right there we have a number of stock characters--the outlaw, the bounty hunter--in the stockest situation of all, revenge. There are patterns and tropes that we expect to see filled here, which as I said the Coens are seemingly eager to defy.

In the first place, Mattie is freakishly intelligent for a 14-year old. Articulate and insistently persuasive, she has none of the innocence nor awkwardness one associates with grieving adolescents; hell, she rolls Jeff Bridges a cigarette the first time she meets him. Part of it is the Coens' love for intentionally unnatural dialogue flourishes (see Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou? for earlier examples), but surely a great deal of it is an alienation effect: this is not your father's Western, and she is no faint southern belle.

Likewise Jeff Bridges, whom we first encounter offscreen using an outhouse, is not the badass we should expect him to be, instead wavering between an efficient killer and goofily drunken old fart, sometimes in the same scene. Perhaps the biggest example of this treatment is Josh Brolin's Tom Chaney; without saying too much, he is not at all the nasty motherfucker we glimpse in the film's deceptive trailer.

Wherefore all this ambiguous characterization? It stems primarily from the movie's ambivalence about its revenge theme. For a film with 'PUNISHMENT' and 'RETRIBUTION' in its advertisements, it is remarkably circumspect and coolheaded about vengeance. Mattie wants justice done, but throughout it is unclear what exactly she wants; she outright refuses to allow La Boeuf to take Chaney back to Texas to be tried, and it's not enough for her to able to degrade him. She is singularly obsessed with bringing him back home, dead or alive, but is remarkably stoic about it all. Her most emotional moments have to do with her horse.

The film, for its part, is much more interested, perhaps too interested, in Rooster's manic quirks and how they bounce off La Boeuf's straight man persona, than it is in building up Chaney so we can delight in his destruction the way Tarantino did with the Nazis in Inglorious Basterds. There is a showdown, and there is revenge, but it's heavily dependent for its success on Barry Pepper's gang leader Ned Pepper and his utter nastiness. The climax also is violent but strangely devoid of the sadism one would expect in a Coen Brothers revenge Western. (The movie's PG-13 for chrissake!)

The extended denouement also comes as a surprise. Without spoiling anything, it takes the movie in a direction that is almost touching; but Mattie's character is so clinically intellectual, and the sadness is at such a remove, that it's hard to know what to feel. Without the outright audacity that the Coens' latest films have brought, the movie's overall effect is one of uncertainty.

I'm sounding like I didn't enjoy True Grit, which isn't true. The actors all bring their A-game, with Hailee Steinfeld doing particularly good work in bringing her peculiar and understated character to life. The Coens script and direction is typically sharp and assured, Carter Burwell's lovely score harkens back to Fargo's mixture of warmth and darkness, and Roger Deakins' cinematography, including shots of a light snowfall covering Mattie's father's body in the film's opening and a desert nightscape towards movie's end that looks positively lunar, is sublime. These go a long way in helping to smooth the edges of the movie's willful obstruseness.

The film dazzles technically, in order to more easily deconstruct and bewilder narratively. This is par for the course, I suppose. All of the Coen Brothers' latest films have taken time to digest, and I suspect this one will be much the same. They've never been easy, but always worthwhile.

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