Best Picture Profile: True Grit

Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Company: Paramount Pictures

Runtime: 110 minutes

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The film is about Mattie Ross, a strong-willed lass who looks for a man with true grit to avenge his father’s death by sending the said man to get Tom Chaney, a hired criminal, to her. On her search for the man with true grit, she finds Rooster Cogburn, a respected and feared yet frequently drunk sheriff. At first, Cogburn is in denial with the prospect job, but as she offered money, he went with the plan. Much to his surprise, Mattie herself joins her. So, with Texas ranger LaBeouf with them, the three go on a journey to get Tom Chaney, dead or alive.

Why such a short synopsis? Because the majority of the film’s running time could only be called with that one word – journey.

Anyway, going back.

The direction is filled with a resounding spirit. This is an action film, but it settles its foundation on a very sturdy ground filled with the feeling of soulfulness. Of course, the direction never neglects the techniques employed in each scene in the film, and it’s even quite impressive, but it also give the material the right amount of space for it to breathe in its own life. It serves the movie with a firm but gentle hold throughout the film. Every move feels both thrilling and visceral. You can feel the confidence in the control of the movie.

And who can forget the warm but threatening atmosphere the film has throughout its whole length? There is the ever-present tactility in the whole process without getting too soft for it to even fit the bill of being an action film. How does it work? The film slowly peels each layer of its material with clarity and grace that it comes to a point where you can’t think of anything that can describe the film but one word – glorious.

Every shot, every piece of music, every cut felt harmonious, for the film’s benefit. It’s quite stunning to see the material like this get some intensely great treatment. I’m in no way going to play the comparison game, but this version is simply much, much better than the 1969’s awful as hell version.

The screenplay was filled with unexpected emotional texture. I expected this to be an action, and indeed, it was an action film. A very effective one, actually. But never did I expect find such heart in this kind of movie. The screenplay was focused on Mattie, and the screenplay was able to fully realize her character. She’s not simply a symbol of strong juvenile femininity. The screenplay a character that we care about. Her struggles, her dreams, her ambitions, her life – everything, the screenplay plotted with such ease.

What about the others? Well, we’ve got extremely fascinating characters that may not have been as three-dimensional as Mattie, but all added served in filling the world of the Wild West with humanity. But that does mean that the rest of the characters are simply enigmas? Maybe, but enigmas fleshed out to create believability.

And talk about the plot. And the humor. And the emotions. And the lines. There goes a great screenplay.

The cinematography is compelling. Every shot feels so well-thought. Every shot feels like it was poetry illustrated. Every shot feels strategically placed yet also with a bit of candidness. Every shot feels warmly vibrant yet inexplicably haunting. Every shot is filled with vivid clarity but, in the same time, clinging mystery. Every shot is delightfully rich yet hauntingly bleak. Every shot feels  beautifully classic yet intelligently modern. Every shot feels mildly calm yet intensely ravishing. To keep it simple, the cinematography is beautiful.

The editing gives the film a very well-decided pace. It never rushes things but it also never drags the film down. The dialogue scenes are composed with simple cuts with no much fanciness in these scenes, but the timing of each cut give the film a feeling of underlined rush from Mattie’s perspective. In contrast to that are the dialogue scenes with Rooster Cogburn at the start of the film. There is Mattie in the scenes which give the feeling of urgency, but it’s Rooster’s dominance that rules over the scenes with the effective use of editing in the film.

Then we have the intelligently handled action scenes. It never overdoes the tricks to make it thrilling. Even if the scenes are filled with violence, the film is still being experienced through Mattie’s view. So, the action scenes in the film still felt seen in a tough woman’s perspective without even going too soft. I’m not saying that these scenes are lame, never. I think that they are oozing with masculine roughness and violence. But at the same time, it never gets out of Mattie’s senses. And, for me, I saw that through the deft editing the film has.

Believe it or not, we have a clearer sense of hearing when we watch films of The Coen Brothers. They always contain unabashed clarity and modulation. And this film is no exception. Even in less showier efforts, you can hear the specificity in the sound. Much more in this showier movie, sound-wise. But even in the less showier parts of the film, the sound already provides the corresponding environment needed for the viewers to be absorbed in the already-gone milieu of the Wild West. The dialogue, of course, takes the audible spotlight in the film, but even the faintest sound from the background, the smallest voice from afar, all is clear, and all provide an aural palette for the film’s world. Great work, if you ask me.

The musical score surprisingly added a lot of heart in the film. It was not a so-so action music. It moves with grace, each note slowly raising the emotional range of the story, and the emotional attachment of the characters to us. Every piece feels well-chosen. That piano arrangement that sometimes get played with the strings perfectly captures the essence of the story. There is toughness in the visual part, but the music still holds Mattie’s eyes for the story, and you can all feel that in the music.

The production design is simply impressive. Down from the most obvious sets to the most unnoticeable part of the office, every single piece of material in it builds up to a complete world. The costume design is also on the same level of excellence, displaying the characters’ psychology by the clothes that they wear without becoming overly literal. The make-up is also effective in adding small touches that significantly adds a lot to the actors’ performances.

The acting is note-worthy.

Jeff Bridges is simply a lot better than John Wayne. I promised no comparison game, but I’m simply doing it right now. Jeff Bridges was able to capture the heart and humanity of Rooster Cogburn that John Wayne did not even try to have a grasp on. Instead of drowning Cogburn in suffocating masculinity, Bridges adds heart to the role. Yes, he’s tough, but he has a heart. And he cares for Mattie. And I felt that. And I even liked him. And that’s the point of Cogburn – a bit distant, but ultimately likable. Bridges gets that part of Cogburn.

Of course, the performance has a setback that keeps me from fully loving it: the accent at the start of the film. His accent is almost consistent throughout the film, another thing that I like in his performance – technically consistent. However, it was too deep or too garbled at the start. Seriously, I needed subtitles for that. Anyway, after some scenes, he recovered immediately. There are few scenes in the course of the film where I still needed subtitles for his dialogue, but what matters more is that I was already able to appreciate Rooster Cogburn the character. And it’s largely due to Bridges.

Hailee Steinfeld is Mattie Ross. There’s no other way to put that in words. She totally inhibits the character with a feeling of rush and ease at the same time. Right from the start of the film, she already sets the character with sharp with and edge in her negotiations with the store owner. In that specific scene with the sore owner, we see how determined she is. She won’t become stupid in front of this man. And surprisingly, it does not look fake. Her speedy delivery, with easy conviction, is what Mattie is when she knows she is dealing with tough people.

But at another scene, where she talks to the owner of the funeral parlor, you can feel that she is sad by that, but always keep the steel determination. You can see the small signs of her grief, but she easily gets it all back in because she knows she needs to be tough for her to survive. And she will do anything for her family to survive because she knows she is in charge, and she is the only one who has the capacity to be in charge.

And that’s what I like about Steinfeld – she knows things. And it’s met with relaxed passion. I don’t want to get into that comparison game, but I’d say this – Steinfeld got Mattie Ross, Kim Darby didn’t. Darby’s version was filled with phony urgency, resulting into a display of stupidity, ridicule, and aimlessness. No offense to the 1969 version, but it just did not get anything right.

Let’s go back to Steinfeld. As Rooster Cogburn enters the scene, she wisely decided to step back a bit for him to take over, but she keeps the courage up front, giving us a very believable if slightly unlikely duo. She gets more affected by the violence that she experiences and sees, and in some moments of the film, it actually quite showed, but as Steinfeld keeps the character throughout the film, she effortlessly puts the strength right in front of her character.

As the film ended, I thought of nothing but Steinfeld. She practically breathed in her character the life that we need to see in a character like her.

Matt Damon is solid as LaBeouf. There is the obvious manly behavior in him, but what’s inside him is a thing to see. He has a thing on Mattie that is amusing to watch, but even if his LaBeouf is not the meatiest supporting role to exist on paper, he still adds a lot in making the characters’ journey a compelling one.

Much more contained in a minute role is Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney. What he has is a symbol of evil, and he does that quite well though I admit that I wanted more. But as I saw how in character he is, I can’t complain anymore. Barry Pepper, also in a small role, fared better. His role is quite thin, and appeared for no more than five minutes, more or less, but he was able to give a daring performance. His anger felt authentic.

This film surprised me the second time around. When I started this year after watching it for the first time, I thought it was technically exhilarating,  but it left me indifferent. After that, I was simply won over by this film.

For this, the movie gets:

5

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or not?

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