Monday, October 15, 2018

Re-coen-sidering: True Grit

This is the fifth and penultimate installment in my bi-monthly 2018 series revisiting Coen brothers movies I didn’t think were so great the first time I saw them.

True Grit had a distinct disadvantage over the other movies in this series, as it was the first I’ve revisited for this series (though not the last) where I was struggling to stay awake when I first watched it. December 2010 saw the release of two high-profile movies starring Jeff Bridges, and I watched both of them as part of a theatrical double feature (which I discussed here if you’re interested). Tron: Legacy was long (125 minutes) and a bit stultifying, so the 9:30 or whatever show of True Grit was a tough slog for me. I remembered the fight against my drooping eyelids better than any fight in the movie.

So what do I do when I watch it again in 2018?

I’m not saying these were the worst possible circumstances to give it a second shot, but I did start the movie after 9 p.m., after a beer, and after I’d gone out running in the late afternoon, which basically left me for dead once I got home. (I’m not in as bad shape as that suggests, but I usually do my weekly run at night, after the kids are in bed, when nothing else is required of me in the hour or two before I go to sleep myself. When I still had two more hours of children before their bedtime, and they wanted to walk down to the park after dinner, I think that was what nearly did me in.)

The benefit of this second viewing was that if my drooping eyelids won, there was something I could do about it. When you watch something at home, you have access to a pause button, a luxury you don’t enjoy in the theater.

I did have to pause True Grit twice for naps – it’s something I do even during movies that are really good – but I made it through in one night, which I count as a victory.

Why didn’t I save it until I wasn’t so tired? Well, for one, it’s a movie I’ve already seen, so better in a way to watch something you’ve already seen when you’re tired, than something whose details are entirely new to you. Secondly, I’m out of the country for the last week of this month, and I have lots to do before then, so I just need to keep powering through my various viewing appointments before I leave.

And I think True Grit ended up being the most better of any of the three I’ve rewatched previously that I didn’t love the first time. (You may remember I started the series with a movie I have always loved, Miller’s Crossing.) In fact, it’s probably the only one out of O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading where I would say there was an appreciable uptick in my feelings toward it. So, in the end, a second sleepy viewing was not a mark against it.

Of the five movies in this series that I didn’t really love (the fifth of which I’ll watch in December), True Grit is probably the one where I’d have the hardest time articulating what it wasn’t I didn’t like about it. (Leading to my theory that sleepiness had a lot to do with it.) Although I liked it better this time, I think this viewing also helped me articulate what I didn’t like about it the first time.

Simply put, this narrative does not proceed forward with what I would consider to be cleverness. The key to a good chase movie – which many westerns are – is that the reason the pursuers stay hot on the trail, or lose the trail, is because of something essential about them: tracking ability, ingenuity, instinct, or on the negative side, maybe a fatal flaw.

Nothing is gained or lost in True Grit because of anything the characters do or don’t do. It all feels pretty random. They are tracking Tom Cheney based on some smartly collected intel, but then they lose him without any real reason – one day two of the three main characters just declare that the trail has gone cold. So without any reason you can point to, the mission has gone from trending toward success to trending toward failure. It’s the end of the second act, the moment of the characters’ greatest crisis, but as no result of anything they did or did not do.

Then when Mattie does spot Tom in the river, it’s just completely random. Through nothing they have intentionally done, they stumble across him, and she even wounds him (though he ultimately drags her off). A few of the other twists and turns at the end revolve around similar dumb luck, almost – dare I say it – deus ex machina, which is a dirty word in narrative storytelling. Confusingly, Rooster Cogburn is kind of part of a different climax with Ned Pepper, that’s occurring alongside the one with Tom Cheney. Cogburn, nominally this story’s hero (it’s really Mattie), does not even participate in the Cheney portion of the climax, though he does help save her from that very unlucky snake bite (deus ex machina again – or maybe devil ex machina in this case?).

If the Coens’ point is that the apparent grandeur of the old west is indeed so illusory, then that would certainly be consistent with other downbeat and cynical endings of theirs (I’m looking at you, No Country For Old Men). Heroes are drunkards, and spend time on trial for the people they killed; villains are basically just dumb hicks who get caught in rivers with their pants down. I get it. It’s just pretty unsatisfying.

Except as I said, it did satisfy me more this time. It may have satisfied me a whole star more. In looking back in Letterboxd, I see that I gave True Grit 2.5 stars the first time around, probably because I felt that much of what was supposed to be distinctive about it was the suspiciously underdeveloped personalities of Cogburn and LaBoeuf (Le Beef as Cogburn says), whose name is only the first way in which his character is played for comedy. Yet if doling out stars for this movie today, I might go as high as 3.5.

As much as I was at a loss to tell you what I didn’t love about it the first time, I’m equally at a loss to tell you now what has dramatically improved. One thing is surely that I have a much greater appreciation for Hailee Steinfeld, who was in her first feature film role here but has since blossomed into one of our most promising young actresses. I actually thought at the time (and still think) that she delivers some of the Coens’ dialogue awkwardly, or maybe that they wrote dialogue that was too awkward for her to deliver naturally – which is interesting because she actually received an Oscar nomination and her performance was one of the film’s most praised elements. But I do like her a lot more in general now, so being reminded of her origins was undoubtedly a positive thing.

I guess I’m also a bit more predisposed to the Coens’ nihilism. If I was bothered that the film is essentially a collection of random stuff that results in a positive outcome, I’m probably a bit less bothered by that now.

I still don’t think the cinematography, from frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins, is one of the greatest examples of his work, either, though he was also Oscar nominated (one of his infamous 13 nominations before he finally won for Blade Runner 2049). There are some good vistas, but I noticed other moments when the lighting seemed blown out, almost like the celluloid was bleached. I don’t think it’s fair to automatically credit a western for its cinematography just because of the landscape in which the photography occurs. I suspect a little of that was going on here.

But like I said, I was more favorably disposed toward this movie than I was the first time, and no longer need to look sideways at people who say they love it. It’s definitely pretty good. I just wish there were a little more there there.

Okay, wrapping up this series in December with the film that is the Coens’ most recent, though won’t be by the time I watch it. I’ll watch Hail, Caesar! for the second time two months from now, and probably before then, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which debuts on Netflix on November 16th. A post on that, but not under the Re-coen-sidering banner, may also be forthcoming.

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