(Ben and Jason, if you've seen A Serious Man, read my Serious Man post first. If you haven't seen A Serious Man, skip that post and go ahead and read here, but only after you've seen True Grit. Major spoilers.)
(Sorry that it's been so long since I've posted anything. I was on vacation for a while. I've also been enjoying discussing True Grit on an email group that I belong to and have benefited from the discussion there. Most of the following was written there first. Sorry. I'm back to CR5FC now.)
A few notes on True Grit.
First, let's get something straight. True Grit is really funny; probably the funniest movie of 2010.
Second, True Grit is most definitely a Coen brothers film with Coen themes in a Coen style.
I've read a lot of reviews now and critics/reviewers tend to get confused about this, loudly crying that this movie is not at all like the previous Coen films, for better or worse. I maintain that the large majority of critics have misunderstood the Coens, especially their last few films, and so cannot possibly have a proper handle on this film. If you think No Country for Old Men is a nihilistic joyride, then of course True Grit makes no sense. But, of course, No Country is the opposite of nihilistic and here in True Grit is the flowering and graceful maturity of all that the Coens have been building toward.
I've argued before and assert now that the Coens are engaged in a radical American fairytale project, starkly laying out for us the ways of the world. Eating an apple in disobedience ruins a man and all men suffer. The Coens understand this.
The strict moral accountability of the Coenverse is finally made explicit in True Grit.
The Coens also repeatedly either explicitly or implicitly point toward the need for some sort of grace. I've been thinking lately about the similarities between A Serious Man and Drag Me to Hell and the Coens and Raimi being friends. While the Coens often are playful jesters in interviews, Raimi is more serious and also quick to use loaded terms like sin and forgiveness. I don't know of many Hollywood people willing to explain their films in terms of sin. Raimi is bold to do so.
And now we have True Grit. Nothing is free except for the grace of God.
Everyone must pay for every sin. Again, this is literalized in a clear fairytale way. Again, the Coens create a highly stylized narrative world and highly stylized, elevated speech to declare the distinctness of this story as a story for us.
The key moment and climax of the film is when little Mattie Ross shoots and kills Tom Chaney.
It's unclear whether or not Mattie Ross is acting in sin when she finally shoots Chaney. The first time she shoots him, she's clearly within her rights as he advances on her. And there is a brief indication that even though she is not quite deputized, she is acting with and on behalf of the law while in a lawless land. When she shoots and kills him at the end, though, I'm inclined to think that she's acting as Mattie Ross and not as an agent of justice of the State. It could be argued that her action is justified, but the way she says "Stand up, Tom Chaney" and refuses to even attempt to hold him and capture him alive while she has a gun trained on him all point toward her wanting to kill the man. She takes vengeance in her own hands.
Stanley Fish (whatever you may think of him) has written a decent appraisal of the film for his NYTimes opinion blog. More than anything else, I appreciate him pointing the following out even though I don't agree with his interpretation of events as meaninglessness: "This is what happens to Mattie at the very instant of her apparent triumph as she shoots Tom Chaney, her father’s killer, in the head. The recoil of the gun propels her backwards and she falls into a snake-infested pit. Years later, as the narrator of the novel, she recalls the moment and says: “I had forgotten about the pit behind me.” There is always a pit behind you and in front of you and to the side of you. That’s just the way it is."
"I had forgotten about the pit behind me."
And so Mattie pays for her action. But then there is grace and redemption. And even this is an answer to prayer. LeBoeuf's whispered "oh lord" before firing his rifle is answered with a perfect shot, saving Cogburn and so saving LeBoeuf and Mattie. Mattie's determined reliance on God ("leaning on the everlasting arms" is the constant musical theme) wins out in the end (in fact, she loses an arm in order to lean better!). The pony ride climax of the film is among the most beautiful sequences the Coens (and their DP Deakins) have ever shot.
The humor is outstanding. I never expected the film to be this funny.
As far as being traditional or "revisionist," it's clear that Grit skews toward traditional, but there are funny jabs at the history of the genre. Having an Indian silenced during a hanging is a clear indication that this is a White Man's Movie. Mattie naming her pony "little blackie" in front of a young black boy who nods and comments approvingly is outrageously funny.
Matt Damon is awesome in his role. The casting is brilliant, a bit of subversive commentary on pretty boy Hollywood actors acting in a rough and tumble action adventure. LeBoeuf is an essentially good man who can't recognize how silly he looks and acts. Damon plays this perfectly. A bit silly, but imbued with dignity.
I'm interested in exploring further how the four films that the Coens have adapted from other sources fit in with their eleven other original stories, but I don't know that I'll be willing to put in the work. I'm thinking of having a Coens marathon this year, but I'm sure y'all remember how that worked out for me last year with Bergman and Rohmer; both marathons still incomplete.
I saw True Grit for a third time on New Year's Day with my father. True Grit was the last film I watched in 2010 and the first film I watched in 2011.
I probably won't have a Top Ten of 2010 list up anytime soon. Maybe I'll post a Top Two list or a Top Ten Moments So Far list.
I've enjoyed all of the recent film club activity. I probably won't get around to responding and interacting this time, but I've read it all and enjoyed it. I haven't watched anything since January 1st, but I think that I'm going to see Unstoppable at the Cinema Saver tonight.
My highest priority right now is getting Woman on the Moon watched. I'm setting a personal record for the longest I've ever kept a Netflix disc. Even so, I'm excited about the upcoming year. Happy 1929! Um, I mean Happy 2011!