Friday, January 28, 2011

True Grit

What we have in the latest adaptation of True Grit is a film that keeps in cadence with the tone and pace of the original Charles Portis book. The film stays true, to some degree, to the Biblical overtones of the novel, which portrayed Mattie almost as the avenging angel of a wrathful God.

In my opinion, however, this somewhat pedantic adherence to the text stifles the cinematic interpretation. What reads well on the page does not make great dialog. The movie mirrors the same flaws as the original text, so this is no surprise. It is a tale of vengeance, not justice. The result is plodding and sometime boring exercise. More than too much attention is paid to the archaic English that sidesteps contractions so obviously that it seems strained.

My main complaint is for the weakness of the villains in the film. They are neither well-developed or particularly interesting. This might have been alleviated by a scene showing the murder of Frank Ross. The drivenness of Mattie is fueled by a vigilante vengeance that has little to do with her Bible thumping pronouncements.I had the sense in the novel that the biblical references held the plot together and these references, while present in the film, were much more watered down.

It is not justice, but rather the wrath of Mattie Ross and the orneryness of Cogburn that reigns down on the heads of the bad guys. Our hopes for resolution of the characters in the plot is not attended to as the character of LaBoeuf is abandoned abruptly in the film and we are left to wonder about him. Once Mattie gets her vengeance she is repelled into a den of snakes wintering in a pit and is bitten by a snake (another Biblical reference) Cogburn rescues her and the movie seems to end abruptly. After plodding on for two hours, in its ending the story collapses upon itself.

My penultimate complaint is that the plot plods along as it bogs down in the bickering between the lead male protagonists. Thirty minutes into the film and the cast is still hanging out in Arkansas.

For all it’s attention to the text, there are some departures as well. In the book, the elder Mattie seems to be in her sixties; the movie portrays her as somewhat younger. As with the original, she is revealed as the one with true grit. LaBoeuf survives in the film as in the novel (in the 1969 movie, Glen Campbell dies helping Wayne save Kim Darby), and Mattie’s arm amputation is also in keeping with the original. In the book Cogburn did not wear an eyepatch to cover his lost eye, and he was around 40. Bridges seems to play an older Cogburn, though both lawman characters are civil war vets. In most other features, the film stays true to the Portis story. As with the book this film has Mattie as the main character throughout. This remains one big disconnect for me- why has Hailee Steinfeld been nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar? She was clearly the best actor in the film and at age thirteen outshined the luminaries she was cast alongside. Was Oscar to shy to nominate her for best actress?

I was surprised to see that the potential for gore and blood were not realized fully. For that I am grateful. The Coens exhibited remarkable restraint in this right. The biggest strength of the production is the cinematography and sound provided by Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell. The score and imagery and decent acting make this a three star movie in my mind- a good film but not nearly an even minor masterpiece.

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