The Kids Are All Right
The Kids Are All Right would have been a highly regarded, stinging family drama in the tradition of American Beauty and Ordinary People even if the subject family was not so proudly unorthodox. What once defined “American” and “Ordinary” in terms of the family constitution no longer holds. Today, we extend our collective admiration to those who celebrate “who they are,” and the prescribed goal of our liberal and liberated society is to avoid judgment and remain accepting. We are urged at every turn to either maintain or create an “open mind.”
This social experiment is ongoing and it is way too early to comment or analyze where it is leading us, or to measure its overall success or failure in terms of the health, psychological well-being, or general stability of families, but it feels in the moment like a rational pursuit. After all - criminal tendencies aside - why should people be forced to be who they are not simply to please others?
Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko, a modern day maestro of Sapphic-themed storytelling, assembles her on-screen family by bringing together two loving moms, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), and two typically moody, misunderstood, and misunderstanding teens, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson); and then to bring the everyday slew of crises to a boil, she throws in the long lost, loopy, lothario sperm donor, Paul, (Mark Ruffalo) who infiltrates and upends a family dynamic that already was showing signs of increased instability.
Beyond a revelation or two expressing what counterintuitive pornographic entertainment arouses lesbians, the marriage between Nic and Jules is portrayed entirely, well, straight. Nic is all business, serious, focused, and tightly wound, and Jules is cool, laid back, flighty, and artistic. The relationship between these two antithetical personalities is as baffling and understandable as any other in the universe. While some romantics profess that opposites attract, others theorize that for a union to last, the participants need to share commonalities. Regardless, it is clear that Nic and Jules are in love, dedicated to each other, and devoted to their children. They are putting in the grunt work in both life and love (certainly made more complicated by their lifestyle), however, they struggle to overcome the obstacles and rough patches that tend to plague every marriage. Cholodenko makes sure that all her characters are realistically flawed, some more than others, and she certainly does not shy away from the ugliness which human beings are capable (sometimes to an unnecessary degree). Her writing flows with a casual self-confidence that the cast does wonders with. Ruffalo, Bening, and Moore, who each can be somewhat grating at times in performances elsewhere, settle into a righteous groove and carry The Kids are All Right to a very satisfying finish line.
The film ends after Nic and Jules rid themselves of pesky Paul and drop Joni off at college. They seem to have crossed and survived a great chasm in their marriage. They grip hands. And as the credits role, the marriage between two women seems perfectly normal. And, really, why not?
Let Me In
In a world where on-screen adolescent vampires spew fluffy drivel about love and longing more often than puncturing carotid arteries with gleaming fangs, Let Me In is quite the raw, fresh, and meaty approach. Yes, we have a young vampire in love (or whatever emotion similar to love the living dead are capable of) and a seemingly doomed romantic relationship that as long as it persists will teeter on the razor’s edge between trust and the ability to control unbearable urges.
Besides the painfully mature performance by 2010 kid phenom Chloe Grace Moretz raising this pitch black little film’s profile, Let Me In is worth squirming through for writer/director Matt (Cloverfield) Reeves’ tremendous sense of atmosphere. From methodically obscuring the faces of adult actors, to saving (savoring) the gore, unleashed only in sudden grotesque bursts, to making tangible the utter desolateness of a low income small town existence in winter, it is almost as if the famished night crawlers are merely a physical manifestation of the environment. The film consciously drains the glamour from the recent wave of vampire mythology flicks. Our bloodsuckers (or, more like blood drinkers based on their hideous manner of collecting their meals) are on the run and holed up in a dead-end apartment complex surrounded by misfits and losers.
Unlike in popular vampire films such as The Lost Boys where the vampires hunt and ravage in packs in contrasts to the surrounding California beauty, or films like Twilight and those based on Anne Rice’s saga where vampires are incredibly wealthy, attractive, and sophisticated (which, again, lies in bold conflict with their primitive, demonic inner beings), Let Me In presents miserable, isolated, inelegant creatures that shamefully need human blood to survive. They are truly monstrous, as pathetic and vulnerable as their hapless white-trash morsels.
Moretz is Abby, who, though in the form of a girl about twelve, is old…very old. Her vampire companion, credited as “The Father” but seemingly her underling, is played by Academy Award nominated actor Richard Jenkins, and the performance is so subtle and sinister, it’s like watching the work of a shadow or toxic storm cloud. Jenkins delivers a clinic in how to convey mountains of emotion with, forget hardly any dialogue; he essentially delivers the performance in swirling gloom.
Abby meets Owen (the oddly endearing nebbish Kodi Smit-McPhee), an ungainly boy, the product of a broken home, and the victim of severe school bullying. His prospects to survive childhood unscarred are bleak even before he encounters Abby and his real tragic existence begins.
For a film about virtually immortal cannibals who ignite in sunlight, the biggest leap of faith the film asks of us is to comprehend Abby. For Owen, his motivation to sacrifice “everything” in order to be Abby’s friend and sometimes protector is easy. Abby is a cute girl who speaks to him, responds to him, and even is willing to eat bullies for him. He has no friends. He has no prospects.
One dilemma vampire stories face, specifically when a human is “turned” at a young age is whether to have the child mature over their hundreds of years wandering the earth, or whether they should remain juvenile and callow. Logic dictates that the vampire, despite appearing as a child or teenager, would become as jaded, cynical, and world weary over the decades and centuries as our human elders do. Worse, they would become bitter and broken. This explains The Father. Well, Abby, who is more than anything else lonely, is depicted as an innocent, helpless child, despite her years and occasional proclivity for murder. Abby’s “love” for and “trust” in Owen is then an intractable conundrum. It is sweet to see their bond, and we want to be optimistic, but it is disaster unfolding. One day, she will surely devour him as well.
The temptation not too deliver the following throwaway line regarding Sophia Coppola’s latest is superseded by the fact that it is so dead on accurate: Somewhere Goes Absolutely Nowhere. The film opens with the sound of a revving engine, but like the muscle car tearing around a track numerous times to the point of monotony, it goes nowhere. It is a film with a beginning, middle, and end, a main character, and a setting, but the plot is flimsier than a publicity agent’s praise. The only question is whether Coppola consciously decided to craft a movie as tedious, vacant, and void of substance as her subject. If she did – and that is a big “if” – the contrivance was rather inspired, perhaps genius, but in any event impossible to watch and appreciate.
Johnny Marco (an adequate but unremarkable Stephen Dorff) is a movie star promoting a recently wrapped film, and by a series of hopelessly dragged out vignettes, we are meant to understand that Marco is a womanizer, a deadbeat, not too sharp, and all too alone. He dozes off as twin strippers pole dance in his room at the notorious Hollywood celebrity haven, The Chateau Marmont. He lounges by the pool. He drives the freeways and boulevards during the day and at night. He beds attractive young tartlets both by design and at times by chance. All these tiresome episodes which account for more than half the film are Coppola’s surprisingly amateurish attempt to drive home the same didactic point about Marco’s character (and perhaps the character of “actors” in general, or maybe she even has someone in mind). But just in case her movie would come and go without a single purpose other than to point out the well established obvious (i.e. celebrities are shallow), an adorable Elle Fanning appears as the daughter we never knew Johnny had, and all of a sudden we are compelled to root for Johnny Marco for the benefit of his offspring and nudge him toward redemption.
At least Coppola has the decency not to go overboard with her protagonist’s journey to self-discovery (though a crying scene where Johnny expresses regret for his choices is reminiscent of the far superior and thematically identical JCVD). Coppola lets Johnny off the hook somewhat in that he does mildly bond with the girl, but no Father of the Year trophies are forthcoming.
By the twist of an obscure phone call, Johnny is required to care for Fanning’s Cleo for a longer than usual period of time (and perhaps even longer than that). So he takes her to Vegas, and Italy for a press junket, and an awards ceremony where half nude dancers shimmy around him, and he more or less tempers his sexual appetite. They even get ice cream in the middle of the night (Awwwww). If we care enough to get involved with this self-absorbed hooey, we might ask whether Johhny is evolving due to the presence of something real, someone that matters, or is he simply adapting to the role of short term caretaker? The film ends with Johnny taking one of his long drives, eventually ditching the car in no man’s land, and walking toward the camera with a slowly developing smirk. So don’t worry about the question just posed. Coppola doesn’t seem to know the answer either.
How to Train Your Dragon, Tangled, and Toy Story 3,
When did it become commendable to insert grievous messages appropriate only for adults into movies allegedly for kids? I understand savvy humor that flies over the heads of tikes and toddlers in order to appease their underwhelmed chaperones, but adult themes that dilute the virtue of the film rather than balance out the ice cream and fluff are a well intentioned disservice. This year, three highly successful and critically lauded movies for the G set, can appropriately mark the teaching points on this scale.
How to Train Your Dragon, from DreamWorks and released in 3D (of course), is a kids movie with all the requisite kidpropriate morals. Like all animated child fare, a fierce, emphatically evil adversary accounts for the adult element in the film. In Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders’ (the team who made Lilo and Stitch) sterling effort, the crisis is simple enough: A seaside town of Vikings is under constant threat of destruction by way of dragon attacks. The men are burly warriors prepared from birth to despise the winged fire breathing menaces and to slay them on sight. Our hero, Hiccup, is the son of the Viking chief and is more brains than brawn. He embodies the same insecurities and awkwardness that comprises most animated protagonists. Hiccup doesn’t fit in and the overt rejection from those around makes him pine for a time and place where he “belongs.”
How To Train Your Dragon is show tune free but finds its magic for children in its fertile understanding of childlike wonderment Although I did not see the film in 3D, I wish I had because the flying sequences and smoldering dragon attacks are magnificent enough in regular 2D, but a film that takes you soaring and swooping in vibrant color is why 3D exists. Naturally, Hiccup winds up gaining acceptance by being true to himself and of course by training and befriending the most feared and exceptional dragon of them all. How To Train Your Dragon takes a bold, brave, and daring chance, and attempts to entertain adults not by being cute, gimmicky, thematically challenging, or infused with pop culture shout outs; it does so, rather, by being excellent, imaginative, heartfelt, and beautiful in fiery flourishes.
Tangled, from Disney, and released in 3D (of course), is a musical take on The Brothers Grimm Fairytale Rapunzel with an ultra-bright façade, a rapid pace, cute, peppy songs, and a story about a girl gaining her independence and falling in love (yes, with a rogue criminal, but girls locked in remote towers can’t be choosers). Although Disney has always been the calculated purveyor of syrupy family entertainment, in recent years, the animation division has developed a keen sense of self-parody, choosing more often than not to deliver shimmery idealism with a wink as opposed to the earnestness of old.
With the curious case of Tangled, a thoroughly enjoyable, sparklingly engineered movie, the technicians at the mouse house make sure all the boxes for kid friendly/parent tolerable are checked, however, Tangled ventures to introduce and develop concepts that could easily plague a child’s mind. A rather complex and dark element involving Rapunzel’s mother/kidnapper/captor, Mother Gothel, suffocating her in a tower in the name of over-protectiveness (with the ulterior - if not primary - intention to defy death and aging via the power of Rapunzel’s sun-kissed hair) is a major factor in the film. And it is not like the black and white good versus evil of the classic princess/stepmother dynamic. This is potent stuff, where Mother Gothel remains a torn, conflicted character who has almost no choice but to keep Rapunzel around. If her daughter would leave, she would surely decay painfully and die (another unsubtle, grave metaphor for the parent-child relationship). That is a heavy load to burden a child with and I wonder how much more disturbed, whether consciously or otherwise, child viewers are then they let on after exiting the theatre.
Tangled is wise enough to overemphasize the songs, comedy, and general gaiety, so that the disturbing portions fade into the background, but I keep going back to the ads for the film. The poster, from the first time I saw it bigger than life in Times Square, troubled me. Two sets of intense eyes, peering out with an unmistakably impish glimmer from a frame of golden locks. Not only does the picture reveal nothing accurate or relevant about the film or its characters, but it is seemingly counterproductive advertising. It says danger and menace and confrontation. It says this film may not be suitable for young children. While the campaign was more likely than not an attempt to defy the Disney cheeriness of old and be edgy, I think it is an unfortunate indicator of kids’ movies worrying too much about parent opinion.
Then there is the most explicit offender, Toy Story 3, released by Disney/Pixar and available in 3D (of course), which made more money and got better reviews than any other movie this year. As is the case with all three films discussed, Toy Story 3 is sharp, moving, visually stunning, and of premiere class, but I am not prepared to call it a winner. I can understand the creators not wanting to sugarcoat life merely because the colors are brighter and voices chirpier, but why is Toy Story 3 so intent on being such a manipulative downer? Sure it’s provocative and audacious to take familiar beloved animated characters like Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, and the rest of the gang, and have them face such “human” trials as neglect, self-doubt, impotence, and death, but, again, why? And why do so in such a conspicuous, visceral way?
In Toy Story 3, Andy, the boy to whom our heroes belong, is off to college and he needs to clean his room. The toys, who I presume haven’t been played with in half a decade are “suddenly” confronted with their status as obsolete child’s play. This results in much hand-wringing and pronunciations of despair. So they escape in ingenious, bumbling Toy Story fashion and wind up in a Day Care Center, which seems great at first, but they soon learn that the place is run by a magenta teddy bear/Machiavellian dictator named Lotso. Lotso’s back-story and descent into madness is alarmingly tragic, his treatment of our friends barbaric, all the more distressful and challenging due to his cuddly appearance and his at first being cordial, and finally, his near success at burning the gang alive is inexcusably graphic.
Of course in the end, all is sunny days and acceptance and self discovery, but the road to such obscure enlightenment is unmercifully dreary.
Besides the fact that I’m pretty certain similar themes were explored rather exhaustively in Toy Story 2, my greatest issue with Toy Story 3 is that the analogy it allegedly intends to formulate and the one that is garnering such overwhelming praise from critics and audiences, in fact, doesn’t translate. Toy Story 3 is not about giving up our childhood delights, comforts, and security, and to make peace with growing up. It really isn’t. I’m not sure what it is about, in the grander sense, not that it needs to be about anything more than toys that come to life when humans look the other way. If it is truly a metaphor for something genuine, please help me fill in the variables. Toy Story movies succeed as entertainment, but are misguided when veering toward philosophical instruction.
Of course I am familiar with the Harry Potter method of storytelling. I understand that fans of the original Toy Story are now grown and can handle, if not appreciate such advanced concepts. I am not questioning the poignancy of the film or its right to boldly go where no kids’ movie has gone before. I question whether the filmmakers are fully aware or appreciative of their target audience’s sensibilities and I wonder aloud if maybe they forgot who exactly that target audience should be.
It always pays to follow Danny Boyle, whether he is leading us through the slums of India, on a solar suicide mission, or into the canyon’s of Utah and the desperate acts of a solitary, exceptional man named Aron Ralston. Some men have their experiences memorialized on film because they lived extraordinary lives, whether visionaries, champions of good causes, or sometimes for committing mass atrocities. Ralston was an anonymous speck in a big world before the ordeal occurred upon which 127 Hours is based. It is possible that even now Ralston has not achieved household name status. His story, you are familiar with. In 2003, Ralston was trekking alone in the dusty, rocky Utah wilderness (apparently an activity called “canyoneering”) without having told a soul where he was going, and he had an accident. He fell into a hole and became stuck. His right arm pinned to the wall by a boulder preventing escape and his food and water rations minimal, Ralston was faced with a series of grim prospects. Since 127 Hours is not a plot driven movie – it is a film reliant upon expert storytelling and an inspired, intimate performance by the goofy wunderkind James Franco – there is no issue with revealing that the life saving choice Ralston made was to slice/cut/hack/pull off his arm with a dull pocket knife and thereby return to civilization and begin again.
It is a unique and interesting (and perhaps freeing) challenge to craft a film where what happens early on and after the fact do not matter in the sense that the moments leading up to and following THE MOMENT are already familiar to the audience and, in a way, void of excitement. From the first scene, as Ralston packs before daylight to make the solo journey, we are brimming with anxiety, watching like prophet voyeurs, knowing the devastation that is yet to befall our carefree subject. As Ralston’s arm searches a high cabinet in his apartment for an unknown object, we see a pocketknife lie innocently just out of his fingertips’ reach…and we cringe and stare with morbid fascination.
Boyle revels in this filmmaker’s mousetrap and uses filters, an exotic, pounding score, off-kilter flashbacks, and hypnotic dream sequences, to flesh out what is really a one-dimensional story about survival. Franco does the rest.
Talk about an actor who goes about his business with seamless, effortless humanity. I don’t know if the performance has enough flair and range to snag a Best Actor Oscar but watching 127 Hours, one can imagine the overly dramatic flexing and acrobatics less confident actors would have thought necessary to convey what Franco does sublimely, by relaxing and allowing the performance to exist in his mind. It is the work of phenomenal intelligence and Franco’s comprehension of the character allows the confusion, awe, fear, and triumph of Ralston’s predicament to dance across his features as if by brain to face osmosis. Because Franco knows that more than anything else this is a movie about the majesty of Ralston’s inner-self, he minimizes his movie-star aura. Most actors and directors would have made it about the physical manifestation of a dire situation; the hunger, the thirst, the heat, the cold, the abandonment, the eventual dismemberment, but Franco and Boyle realized that nothing overt could compare to the real source of power inherent in Ralston’s escape from that canyon with his life. That is the depiction of quiet emotions like a deep love of being alive and life’s ineffable gifts that drive a man.
Ralston’s will to live, a relentless force emanating in invisible tidal waves from his heart, combined with the sharpness of his mind, propels superhuman abilities, and a film to match.
The Fighter and The Town
I’ll start with a dose of New York elitism. We have Scorsese, Allen, Pacino, and DeNiro. Our golden age was the late 70’s and early 80’s when landmark films such as Mean Streets, The Godfather, and Annie Hall were produced. Boston has a couple of Wahlbergs and two pals named Affleck and Damon. Their golden age is more or less now. It sputtered to life with the surprise success of Affleck and Damon’s fine but overrated Good Will Hunting, continued with a cute Jimmy Fallon romantic comedy that incorporated the Red Sox winning the World Series, and found its signature moment with The Departed (directed by Scorsese, but I’ll give it to them). This year, two homegrown talents who have risen to the level of shot-callers in Hollywood have used their clout to bring a Boston legend and a contemporary Boston fable to the big screen. Mark Wahlberg, producer of The Fighter, and Ben Affleck, director of The Town, are clearly proud of their city. They profess their affection, try on a Bahstan accent for size, and make an attempt at street cred, by releasing films that expose the grittier side of Boston and its environs in order to tell tales of desperate men, trying to claw their way up from poverty and murk.
The most amazing thing about The Fighter is not that it is an uplifting, beat-the-odds story based on a true events, but rather that it is the first time Mark Wahlberg has played a boxer. Watching him as Mickey Ward, a Lowell, Massachusetts puncher coming up, it all feels so familiar. Mickey is the quiet muscle bound decent guy who is too good to his questionably motivated mom (captivating Mellisa Leo) and sweet to neighbors, a gentleman to the cute, college edcuated bartender (aptly tough and plain Amy Adams), and respectful of the neighborhood old timers. He trains hard, believes in himself, and after being knocked to the mat a few times in both life and the ring, finds a way to get up and overcome the obstacles to reach glory. Sounds like a role Wahlberg could handle in his sleep, and he submits his typical workmanlike, charming effort.
The Fighter works off a very good script by three writers, but 1976’s Rocky, which it certainly evokes in nearly every way, was a great script. I can’t imagine anyone involved with The Fighter believed they were introducing a novel premise, and in attempting to repackage a well beloved archetype, they do succeed by not trying to mess with the formula too much.
For David O. (Three Kings) Russell’s film, the only aspect of the proceedings that feels entirely new and revelatory is the work of Christian Bale as Mickey’s brother, Dicky Eklund (different father). Dicky’s existence is predicated on a dubious knockdown of Sugar Ray Leonard which earned him local celebrity, and his hopeless addiction to crack. Bale is the Best Supporting Actor favorite this coming awards season without much competition. In Dicky, Bale becomes invisible as an actor and individual, and all that remains is one ugly, awkwardly moving, spacey eyed, loser who is a slave to drugs, but cares for his brother and knows boxing. While Wahlberg’s Mickey is someone we can relate to and root for, Dicky is there to challenge us, and through Bale’s commitment to the role, The Fighter is lifted and given a remarkable credibility.
The Fighter is in essence about delusion and the ways we can and do trick ourselves in order to be greater or lesser than we are. Mickey believes he is second rate but with some motivation and the positive influence of a solid girlfriend, he adjusts his mindset and shocks the boxing world. Dicky believes that he is god’s gift to Lowell.
Before the credits role, we briefly meet the real Mickey and Dicky, and for a moment, because these men are real, their accomplishments and failures real, we are engaged by The Fighter on a level that a fictional tale like Rocky could never achieve.
Ben Affleck’s The Town (whoever thought we’d hear that phrase and that it would evoke quality?) is not as ambitious as The Fighter in terms of being a prestige project, but it battles nobly to be taken seriously. The problem of course is that while the action is crisp, and tension building expert, the story, characters and their motivations are utterly preposterous. A film can only be as riveting as its ability to have the audience believe or suspend belief, and though The Town takes steps toward authenticity, it fails to meet even the basic requirements of plausibility. Such inadequacies would be acceptable, if not expected, in any of Affleck’s prior disposable action flicks, but as a newly minted director of superior films (Gone Baby Gone), and being that The Town vaguely aims for something higher, the result is a disappointment. For Affleck, it is a step backward after numerous steps forward (but still miles from junk like Paycheck and Daredevil).
Being that The Town is a film about cold blooded thugs who commit their crimes in rubber masks (thank you Point Break), from the thug perspective (thank you Point Break), and seeks viewer sympathy and compassion (whether Affleck will deny such intentions or not…and thank you Point Break), it had its work cut out for it. It needed to navigate such material very carefully, living and breathing in the vast ambiguities of human nature (as Point Break does so astutely). Affleck instead ventures to define everything and everyone down to finite, irreconcilable detail, leaving no room for the illogical actions they then perform and undertake.
The Town badly could have used a virtuoso performance like The Fighter’s Bale to elevate it. We are instead given a number of impressive, but token flashy performances by veteran actors in tough guy bit parts (Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper as irredeemable lifelong criminals) and newcomers in “dramatic stretches” (The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner who is good (again) but not as great as the star-makers would have you believe, and most notably, Blake Lively, excellent as a drug-addled neighborhood floozy).
Affleck, who has only deserved raves as an actor once (Hollywoodland), is Doug MacRay, a bankrobber. What we know about Doug through observing his acts is that he is a talented professional bankrobber, in top physical shape (gratuitous work out, sex, and shower scenes would be deemed exploitative, but since Affleck is the director, we would have to call them conceited), and has no qualms about spraying automatic weapon fire at the police or on public city streets. What we are supposed to believe about Doug because he is played by Ben Affleck, speaking softly with a perennial puppy dog expression, is that he is a nice, sensitive guy, forced into a life of crime by being a Charlestown product (the bank robbery capital of the world as the prescript claims), and that he deserves a second chance despite his past sins. Such is just one example of the staggering inconsistencies that The Town asks us to validate. In this sense, The Fighter is not the only film this year that expresses the effects of self-delusion by one of Boston’s favorite sons.
Just in case you thought The Coen Brothers were capable of excelling in every other genre except the Western, comes True Grit, a fairly straight shooting retelling of the1969 revenge yarn about a no-nonsense fourteen year old girl, a boozy, grizzled U.S. Marshall, and a comically cocksure Texas Ranger tracking the man who shot and killed the girl’s father. Each member of the hunting party makes the trip for their unique reason. From a sense of duty, to financial gain, sheer boredom, to a strange brew of all three; however, it is the girl’s unwavering sense of justice and unpracticed manipulation of the other two lawmen that gets the ball rolling.
Although Jeff Bridges, expertly inhabiting the veteran Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, a role forever associated with John Wayne’s Oscar win, and Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger, are the big names here, it is the sharp tongued girl, Mattie Ross (played to sheer perfection by Hailee Steinfeld) that keeps matters interesting. Mattie Ross, in the hands of Steinfeld, is a firecracker, forever watchable and worthy of our utmost attention. She is a methodically proficient machine, handling her business with a fascinating style and exactitude. Her devotion to getting things done the right way, in self-assuredly navigating adult waters, and her practicality in analyzing all situations is a marvel to behold, and we can easily imagine her surviving the treacherous adventure that True Grit puts her through.
Whether noir, a mob picture, a screwball comedy, or a period piece, The Coen Brothers clearly enjoy expanding their comfort zone and bringing an enigmatic style and eccentric, often brutal method of storytelling to well-tread arenas. True Grit does not represent as novel or daring an approach to the material as we might have anticipated after revelatory productions such as Miller’s Crossing, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and Fargo, but it does occasionally take pleasantly peculiar risks.
The film builds with immaculate grace, as we meet Mattie, learn of her regrettable circumstance, and are apprised of her mission. As she recruits Cogburn by playing equally to his ego, ethics, and dire economic straits, we are treated to Mattie being Mattie, having things done her way or the highway, implementing her will on all those who dare underestimate her abilities.
Once we are off on the trail of her prey, a mysterious man named Tom Chaney who has taken up with a posse of roughnecks meaner than he (lead by an unrecognizably filthy Barry Pepper), we are head over heals invested in our characters’ well being and in the outcome of their quest. The exchanges between Mattie, the nearly broken Rooster, and eventually Damon’s quixotic Ranger (who pursues Chaney for an unconnected slaying), are wonderfully hardnosed and confrontational, but at the same time revealing. We learn mainly about Rooster and his many foibles in life and love, his propensity to hide a sensitive nature behind a gruff, disaffected exterior, and that when he means to kill someone, it is only a matter of time. The Coen Brothers capture (or at least masterfully replicate) the atmosphere and lazy, yet stirring tone of the proper Westerns. Where the movie tails off rather steeply is in its third act.
Until we actually meet Chaney, which takes place by anticlimactic coincidence, he is an imposing figure, an unfathomable fiend, full of dread and menace. As played by Josh Brolin, and presumably at the behest of the Coens, Chaney winds up a marble-mouthed, dimwit who is as responsible for his actions as any lobotomy patient. Once we stumble upon him, the film immediately loses its enchantment and struggles mightily to maintain a steady pace and remain relevant for the audience. In fact, and sad to say, True Grit never recovers. The good guys do save the day, but they do so in conventional fashion, where everything you sort of expect to happen happens (shame on you, Coen Brothers!), and without a formidable adversary to provide the fated encounter with gravity, True Grit, though very good, fails to enter the pantheon of great Coen Brothers movies. (As an aside, for a much more rousing and severely underrated modern stab at the Western, try Ron Howard’s The Missing.)
Young Mattie is seen many years later as an old maid, mourning Rooster, and without her left arm, the casualty of a snake bite witnessed earlier in the film. Mattie’s fate corresponds well to that of her movie. True Grit carries on gallantly for much if its ride, but when the sun sets in the west, it’s still missing something.< >< >< >< ><-->