Our Netflix queue has been holding True Grit (2010) for a while and we finally got around to seeing it for the first time last night. Yeah, we heard all the buzz last year. Yes, it was another masterpiece by The Coens; yes it was a legendary story; of course we heard that relative newcomer Hallie Steinfeld turned in a surprise performance. And we were well aware of the fact that Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon were headlining as well (although we didn’t know that Barry Pepper played one of the bad guys; we like Barry – he’s a talented fellow). Uh-huh, yep – we also heard that the Academy teased the ensemble and creative teams with 10(!) nominations but didn’t bother to farm out even one golden guy. Yes’m. All that. Still didn’t see it until now. Why? The veteran readers of the blog know it. Our laziness is legend. And there you go.
Anyway, yeah, really liked it. Not much fans of Westerns are we, but really good ones are a treat since we watch so few. Some of our faves on the shortlist: Unforgiven (Eastwood poisoned with alcohol and rage is goosebumpingly electric!), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (oddly, we expected Steve McQueen to show up on a motorcycle at some point), The Wild Bunch (who doesn’t like William Holden? OK, the three of you are excused, the rest of the planet is going to watch Stalag 17 again in a few minutes), Silverado (bubble-gum Western-ho!), and the Sergio Leone spaghetti films.
Indeed, the Sergio Leone films made us love the grime, the sweat, the sun, the tall stranger, the beautiful woman, the dastardly villain. It didn’t hurt that consumate man’s- man, Clint Eastwood, starred in three of Sergio’s biggest films. He was a master of a bad-ass, good-vs.-bad kind of Western. Having said that, Once Upon a Time in the West gets a lot of critical nods yet we don’t feel quite as enthusiastic. Here’s our take:
The good: Henry Fonda, the lanky bad guy (his apparent easy style belies his brutality), Jason Robards (filthy and drunk – playing it close to the vest, aren’t we; very well done, though); Claudia Cardinale (forget the tepid acting … just wow); it’s Sergio Leone, for crying out loud, so it’s not really going to be dull even if it doesn’t shine.
The bad: 90 minute film stretched into 175 (the opening sequence is meant to convey the tedious suspense of the expansive and sporadically violent West, we suppose, but holy hell … it’s like 15 minutes long and it could still have been provocative at 5); Sergio has “been there, done that” three times before (his formula is goo, but this film doesn’t really give us anything new); and weird little details just don’t compute (e.g., we know Jill is a gold-digger, but her pairing with McBain and his brood of redhead kids is odd; money-love is blind but how in the world did they even start out together?).
The ugly: Charles Bronson is ridiculously clichéd (if you’re going for the silent, “cool” guy cliché, Eastwood pulls it off better; and, Chuck, the eery two-note piece is spooky the first couple of times we hear it but quickly becomes annoying — so stop with the damn harmonica already!).
Oh, yeah. We were originally talking about True Grit. Right-o, then.
Jeff Bridges was superb. We completely forgot that he’s a “dude.” He doesn’t play any role he’s ever played before and, in concert with his other brilliant performances, is incredibly believable. The character he invokes is Rooster Cogburn. Rooster is not scary and he’s not a pushover. He’s a drunk but not a lush. He’s a tough guy but one that doesn’t really have to try to be. He has … well, true grit. Simple, really. We sense that fear isn’t something that eludes him. He’s aware of it, he occasionally has it, but he just doesn’t concern himself with it. He’s not the clichéd “silent but strong type” we talked about above and he’s not a mean son-of-a-bitch. He just goes about his business his own way. But, he’s not arrogant. Just pay attention to his boring monologue spoken while he and Mattie meander down the trail. Here’s a man that’s probably lonely but isn’t overwhelmed by it. He’s not aloof about relationships, he’s just not very good at them. He probably drinks a lot to escape his sorrows, but he doesn’t allow that to incapacitate him completely. In other words, he’s just an average Joe that happens to have a single thread of principle in him that makes him very good at the one thing he does. How Jeff teased that out is what’s magical about his performance.
Hallie was a complete a surprise. Sure, we heard the impressions from those that had already seen her performance, but we didn’t really understand where her talent lay. Her “Mattie” was quick and stern, driven and determined. She would not deviate from her intentions. But she was also loyal and protective. Mattie had zero lack of self-confidence and Hallie played that brilliantly. One of the best child performance’s we’ve seen and just as much a core principle of the film as Jeff Bridges’.
Matt Damon had a somewhat light role. The real focus was on Jeff’s and Hallie’s characters, but Matt played the dandy LaBoeuf with the flair his character needed. Ranger Rudy LaBeouf (there’s no mention of his first name in the story as far as we’re aware, so we’ve just made one up) takes himself way too seriously and doesn’t much care for Rooster Cogburn’s unkempt style (or lack therefore) and manner. He’s a proud Texas Ranger and he always gets his man! We discussed this after the movie — from where we sit, it seems that the more manly the Texan, the greater the affectation and the more indulgent the personality. He’s a hot mess of prissiness, this LaBoeuf. If his intent was to show his authority or some sort of male dominance, spanking Mattie didn’t help his image. Steers and queers, my friends. But, be who you’re going to be and be good with that. Just don’t deny it, cupcake.
In a small role, Josh Brolin also captivated us with his dim-witted Chaney. We weren’t expecting that, especially since he showed us a completely different type of character in a previous Coen outing, No Country for Old Men. He played his Chaney role convincingly, we thought. We already mentioned Barry Pepper’s role. Nicely played as the gang leader, Lucky Ned. Ned was a hard man, but there was no overt evilness, just badness. We almost didn’t recognize Barry under the awful teeth and the weathered face of Lucky Ned (kudos to the makeup and wardrobe people for this film, by the by).
Lastly, we were curious about the older Mattie character. Suffice it to say that she loses a limb. Sorry about the spoiler, but it needed to be done to close the post with a spot on the woman that played the body double. The scene puts an exclamation point on Mattie’s own true grit.
Anyway, we were wondering whether the actress playing adult Mattie was truly missing an arm or if technology rubbed it out. It’s the former. The woman that acts as the body double is Ruth Morris. We’re always appreciative when directors don’t cut corners and use people that truly represent the roles they are playing. The scenes with Ruth and Elizabeth Marvel (the actress that plays 40-year-old Mattie) are fluid and the shots of her striding through the train station and onto the rodeo grounds are striking. They show the same poise and self-confidence that young Mattie possessed, demonstrating that the loss of her limb did not hamper Mattie’s progress through her life’s achievements. Well done. Here’s an interesting story about Ruth’s experience working on the film.
And just for fun, here are some movie posters. The painted image of Harmonica (Charles Bronson) taking out the three assassins is awesome! Talk about capturing a moment of violence in a sensational way. Click on the images and expand them to get the full effect.