The Long and Winding Blog, Day 107: Gritty and Great

January 16th, 2011

Munyin and I saw TRUE GRIT last night.  It’s pretty much perfect.

If I were still teaching writing, I would assign this movie, along with a relatively small number of books and films, to my students to help them answer the question, what is a story?  I haven’t read the Portis novel, but I’m going to assume that the Coen brothers were relatively faithful to it.  The film feels literary, but not in a bad way.

TRUE GRIT boils story down to essentials:

A highly focused and fascinating central character, Maddy, who wants one thing in the world at the expense of all others — in this case, to see her father’s death avenged.

Two complex secondary characters, Rooster Cogburn and LeBoef, who are focused on the same goal but for different reasons than Maddy.

A straightforward story progression, acted out against an increasing emotional involvement among the three principals.

A blisteringly beautiful setting that’s also deceptive and occasionally deadly.

Antagonists who are both convincingly bad and convincingly human.

A sensational and only slightly off-the-wall (the snake) c0nclusion.

One of the strong points of the story — rammed home, as is so often the case, by the lone exception — is that everything that comes to pass in the conclusion has been laid in during the story’s opening section.  (The snake, which I won’t describe farther for those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, is literally the only thing that comes out of nowhere.)

And the film itself is severe, formal, funny as hell, beautifully written and even more beautifully shot, and the casting is superb. I mean John Ford superb, but without the familiarity of Ford’s stock company of actors.  There’s a brilliant two-scene turn early in the movie by Dakin Matthews as Stonehill, a sharp dealer who probably cheated Maddy’s father but who more than meets his match in Maddy.  The scenes were probably in the book to demonstrate to us Maddy’s toughness and intelligence, but Dakin Matthews hits it out of the park.  (By the way, if you’d like to read an amazing life, look up “Dakin Matthews” on Wikipedia.)

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon are both wonderful, and Damon is hilarious as well.  Hailee Steinfeld is perfect as Maddy.  But the movie’s most surprising performance to me doesn’t even hit the screen until the film is 90% over, and we finally see the killer we’ve been tracking, and he’s Josh Brolin.  And he’s marvelous — petulant, childish, funny, and dangerous as hell.

Great story.  Great movie.  My personal favorite of the year.

15 Responses to “The Long and Winding Blog, Day 107: Gritty and Great”

  1. Larissa Says:

    I love the Coen Brothers and I’ll definitely have to check this one out. I saw a brilliantly done film last night as well-The King’s Speech-it pretty much has all of the components that you’ve touched on here-it’s painful, funny and beautifully shot. I hadn’t heard of it until a friend of mine suggested it and now that I’ve seen it, I have to tell everyone to go do the same. (c:

    True Grit sounds awesome, for sure. Maybe I’ll actually have the rare occurrence of seeing two good movies back to back.

  2. EverettK Says:

    I’ve been aware of the remake, and I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed that they’d do a good job of it. Thanks for the review!

  3. Glenn W. Says:

    Thoroughly agree with your critique of the movie. And as blasphemous as it is to say or dare put in print, I like it (for various reasons)even more than the John Wayne version. There, I’ve said it.

    But as in all westerns, what makes it particularly special is that it has horses….lots of horses.

  4. Gary Says:

    Awww!

    How can we like it more than John Wayne? Eyepatch, reins in his mouth, a pistol in each hand, galloping towards the foe and shouting, “Fill yore hands, you sons of bitches!”

    But if you’re putting it in the same league as “The King’s Speech”, I guess I should check it out.

  5. Gary Says:

    Or did he shout that before he put the reins in his mouth?

  6. Sharai Says:

    Yes! True Grit was 100%. It feels so good to walk out of the theater without a single nitpicking thought, just satisfaction. We just saw BLACK SWAN, which was pretty black. There were many times I felt it wasn’t working but each time Aronofsky pulls it back from the edge with just enough grace – or maybe Natalie Portman gets the credit. In the end I did feel I’d seen some good art. I’d love to read your take on it when you’re lacking blog material. So far the ideas just keep rolling don’t they!

    The cover of BANGKOK NOIR is amazing!!!!

  7. Jen Says:

    True Grit blew my mind!
    My favourite line was the kid outside Stonehill’s- “We ain’t allowed to speak your name”.
    I have to agree- pretty much perfect.
    It kind of makes me not want to read the Portis or see the original…
    I don’t know if that’s good, bad or ignorant.
    Anyway, sorry not to really contribute to your blog via this comment. This movie just makes me want to jump up and down and type stupid stuff anytime someone mentions it. THAT. GOOD.
    Thanks for the relevant-to-writing breakdown!

  8. Robb Royer Says:

    If a – oh lets not say disagreement – let’s say discussion, cognitive bifurcation, any of that – were to appear on these pages I trust it would not derange our half century of mutual love and respect. If I’m wrong say so at once and I’ll shuffle back to my grotto.

    But on the subject of True Grit, which I abashedly admit I have been referring to as Faux Grit (sorry Bonnie and Everett, no time for italics here, I’m on a roll)… the thing is, I don’t really disagree with anything you said about the movie itself. The Coen brothers are brilliant filmmakers, the performances are terrific, it’s shot brilliantly… ‘tho I did think they blew the epilogue. They made her seem so barren and unpleasant and off-putting, she seemed in retrospect hardly worth saving. Certainly a disturbing downhill run from the fascinating and determined little girl we saw through most of the movie.
    But aside from all this, the problem for me was it’s remake-ness. Yeah, I know Huston’s Maltese Falcon was the third one, same with Flynn’s Robin Hood, but THESE ended up as the classics. Frame by frame, with few exceptions, I thought this film compared poorly with the John Wayne classic and I felt the Coens were being disingenuous about the amount they were borrowing from thew original. Can anyone watch the horse trading scene and tell me that guy wasn’t doing Strother Martin? Or that the bad guy wasn’t doing Robert Duvall? Would you rather watch Strother Martin and Robert Duval or someone doing them? The little girl was arresting, but she mumbled and for me Kim Darby was much more believable in her sesqui-speak.

    I am aware the turd in the punchbowl of my argument is Glenn Campbell, who can’t act compared with Matt Damon who does it rather well. But ‘fill yore hand you sonuvabitch’ spoken by anyone but John Wayne? For me, no. And this ultimately was the problem. The original never went away. It was the movie’s doppelganger, like a blurred superimposition on the screen, like George and Marion haunting the whole movie. I also thought the Coens should have at least acknowledged the original in the credits. Instead they acted like they they wrote an original screenplay directly from the book and didn’t actually even see the John Wayne version. Those guys just happened to clone Strother and Duval. Please! Nothing wrong with a tribute just ‘fess up!

    For me, award wise, you can’t compare even an excellent remake like True II with heart-stopping original concepts like Social Network or Kings speech.

    But that’s just my ‘umble ‘pinion mahster, I’m off to the grotto now.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    What I have to say about this movie is that it’s great, great, great. Even Munyin, who watched scary parts (there aren’t many of them) through a large throw pillow, loved it.

    Jen, it does make me want to read the Portis, although not see the original — I saw it a long time ago, and there’s no way I’m trading Hailee Stansfeld for Kim Darby or Matt Damon for, gulp, Glen Campbell. Not to mention Beau. I can’t think of a single element that didn’t work 100%. If the dialogue came from Portis, though, I want to read Portis, but not till the e-book prices come down some.

    Sharai, we have similar tastes, although I’m too much of a chicken to watch BLACK SWAN and Mun would have to watch it from inside the coat closet — her pillow wouldn’t be anywhere near big enough. And I’m with you about TRUE GRIT being perfect. And what makes it better, to me, that THE KING’S SPEECH and SOCIAL NETWORK is that it takes a huge swipe at near-mythic material and succeeds. People will be watching TRUE GRIT when SOCIAL NETWORK (which I really liked) is gathering dust on Netflix’s shelves.

    Gary, they kept the line, which probably comes out of the book, and it got a cheer from me and a muffled whoop from behind Munyin’s pillow. I like it better than THE KING’S SPEECH or SOCIAL NETWORK, and I loved both of those. Although I don’t think any actor I’ve seen this year can touch Colin Firth in TKS. There, Mun, I said it. You can put down the steak knife now.

    Glenn, BOY are there horses. The last sequence has to make you speechless with horse admiration. But I’ll take it over the Wayne version any time, mainly for the performances (the hilarious Matt Damon over the unintentionally funny Glen Campbell) and the amazing, unique, sui generis dialogue. And the Wayne movie was directed by Henry Hathaway, one of my favorites. But still . . .

    One of the things that occurs to me now is that most of the adult characters, including Rooster, LeBeouf, and the outlaws, were big, willful, rampaging, dangerous, self-mythologizing children, and Mattie was the only real adult in the story.

    Everett, all I can say is, see it. We watched at home (Academy screener) but I would have LOVED to have seen it on the big screen, whereas I didn’t feel that either TKS or SN was harmed by being shrunk. I have to say, I think the cinematography was (almost) on a par with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which is my all-time reference point for panoramic films.

    Riss, glad you liked TKS. We watched it three times in two days, although that was partly motivated by Mun’s inability to breathe in and out if Colin Firth wasn’t visible. We’re over that now, I’m proud to say. Tonight we’ll be watching him as Mr. Darcy in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

  10. Laren Bright Says:

    While you were seeing True Grit, we were seeing The Fighter. How interesting it is to read a blog with several positive movie reviews all at the same time. The fighter is a winner, also, not only for a well told story, but also for superb casting and acting. Totally believable — and, during the end credits, there’s a little vignette that makes it all the more real.

    Thanks for the scoop on True Grit.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Robb — I was wondering when you’d weigh in.

    In the interest of candor, I think you’re totally right about the epilog — dreadfully sour — and totally wrong about everything else. I infinitely prefer this movie to Wayne and Hathaway’s, if for nothing else because Kim Darby was so wearyingly one-note as Mattie and Hailee was so fine. And I can’t overlook Glen Campbell, who not only could barely get on his horse but was also completely incapable of participating in the web of emotional ties that arose among the three of them as the movie went on. I love John Wayne, but I’ll take Jeff Bridges as Rooster.

    I think your point about the Coens being disingenuous about the Hathaway movie is on the ball. In the first 60 seconds of Dakin Williams’ first scene, I said to Mun, “That would have been Strother Martin 40 years ago,” although I don’t think I have any memory of Strother Martin in the part. But I liked the scene better because I had never seen Dakin Williams in my life, and he WAS Stonehill to me (and because he knocked it out of the park). And I really thought Brolin was wonderful — a big, petulant, violent, homicidal child.

    BTW, I got it all wrong about the snakes being thrown in at the end, as Mun pointed out to me; they’re laying down ropes to protect Rooster from snakes all the way through the movie, and he tells her she doesn’t have to worry about them.

    But I’ll put TG up against TKS or SN any day. The Academy may not agree with me, though — the Golden Globes went on as though TG didn’t exist.

    Hey, Laren — I’m thinking about The Fighter, but Munyin would have to be in Kansas or something when I watched it. But I really do want to see it.

  12. Bonnie Says:

    Wouldn’t True Grit be up for next year, though? I’m never sure how that works.

    I’ve not seen TG yet (am terrible about making myself go to movies alone, and at home I’d almost always prefer a book to a movie), but I am torn, as I really have a thing about remakes, especially soulless American remakes of foreign films (Mostly Martha != No Reservations, no way, no how); OTOH I adore the Coen brothers. So we’ll see.

    Just wanted to share with Munyin, if you are willing to facilitate, the sisterly joy in watching Colin Firth do *anything*! (I even saw that travesty Nanny McFee, though admittedly I’d switch sexual orientation for Emma Thompson, too.) I envy you your P&P session tonight, and so far have not been persuaded there’s any reason to view the Kiera Knightly version.

  13. EverettK Says:

    Just back from seeing True Grit. LOVED it! I agree, the cinematography was beautiful, the acting was pitch-perfect, the writing and directing top-notch.

    As the for the “tacked-on ending,” I’m not entirely sure, but that may have been in the first version also. It seems AWFULLY familiar anyway. Maybe I’m remembering a different movie, it’s probably been 30 years since I’ve seen it. But I can well believe the book might have ended that way. Things read differently than they film. I think a different ending than that one would have worked better, but to each their own, I suppose.

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, Bonnie — it’s a great movie and not a pallid remake. I didn’t know Colin Firth was in “Nanny McPhee,” and I’m not telling Munyin.

  15. EverettK Says:

    By the way, Tim, I’m curious, are you a member of the screenwriter’s guild, or how does it work that you qualify to screen the Academy Award nominees (besides living in southern Cal)?

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