Sunday, 6 March 2011

True Grit; sometimes it's best not be too faithful

By all accounts the Coen brothers' True Grit is a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis' novel than the John Wayne version. To anyone who has heard the Coen quip that they work as a pair so that one of them can hold open the source material while the other one types, this will not come as surprising news, but I am wondering whether it's the best way.

True Grit's a very good movie, but somehow doesn't quite work as a narrative. The opening half of the film, where Mattie Ross cajoles and blusters her way round Fort Smith trying to get the money she needs to bribe Rooster Cogburn into chasing her father's killer, is really very fine. It's all about talk and character, two things the Coens have always handled very well. Once the film eases into the chase after Tom Chaney, things don't work so well, because it's all about incident from there on in, and the Coens have a very naturalistic attitude to plot and incident. On the one hand, this is a great idea, since there's something terribly dispiriting about the new standardised Hollywood through-line where some loner finds redemption by confronting something or other. In real life, stuff happens in a jumble, and if there's a victory at all, it tends to go to the guy who's best at ignoring the jumble and getting on with things. The trouble is, we all have to live in real life anyhow, and we go to the movies to get away from it, so a little reality is the very most that any of us want to have to put up with.

The chase after Tom Chaney is a picaresque mess of blind alleys and missed opportunities. Years ago, Hal Hartley made a movie which he described as intentionally resembling a car chase with one flat tire, and I think he'd have nodded approvingly at what the Coens are doing in the back half of True Grit. The problem is that when the climax comes, its feels as flat and misfiring as the rest of the chase, and what ought to be tense is not.

Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the movie; it's hard not to enjoy a movie which includes things like Jeff Bridges' opinion on why a man was hanged quite so high "Possibly in the belief it'd make him more dead." While Bridges is a bit all over the place, he's got some very good scenes in the early on. Hailee Steinfield, the lynchpin of the whole movie (and unfairly omitted from the poster in favour of Josh Brolin, who's practically not in the thing at all) is consistently good; the whole point of her character is that she's completely implacable, almost one-note, and for once the fact that an actor never moves off her baseline is a good thing in a movie.

However, for me the best moment was Mattie crossing the river half way through the film, moving from the dusty yellow light of the opening skirmishes into the greyer, frostier world of the chase proper. It's a tremendously exhilarating moment, and curiously, nothing that follows packs quite the same amount of punch. The second half of the film is resolutely downbeat and grim, and while I'm sure it's true to the book and more importantly true to life, it's curiously unsatisfying. The first half drew me in; in the second half, I found myself checking my phone messages. That's not a good sign, especially when I consider that I'd gone to unusual lengths to see the movie, which for some reason wasn't showing at all in the tiny town I'm staying in, and was in a dead end early evening slot in the nearest bigger town.

I do keep asking myself about the guy hanging up so high. Not why they did it, but how. Mattie has to climb to the top of the tree to cut him down, which meant, of course, that someone had to climb just as high to tie the noose up in the first place. Which is a curiously awkward way to carry out an impromptu hanging.

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