Saturday, April 20, 2013
"True Grit" (2010) seems an unimaginative western
I'm not sure why this story was good enough for not one but two movies. The Bridges role was played in the original movie by none other than John Wayne. It was impossible to upstage Wayne, the "Duke." The 2010 version of "True Grit" has Bridges in competition with young Hailee Steinfeld for attention on the screen. You'd never guess from the commercials, but Bridges ends up in second place.
Is this the same Jeff Bridges who played the hippie photographer in the 1970s "King Kong?" It sure is. He's the son of Lloyd, you know, who ended up sniffing glue in the classic comedy "Airplane." Lloyd learned how to do comedy at the end of his career. Judging by the disparate characters Jeff can play, it's "like father, like son."
You can't tell the players without a program sometimes. So, I wasn't even aware Barry Pepper was in the movie until after the fact. Pepper is a guy I can spot and always say "there's Roger Maris!" I'll always associate him with that role. He played a sniper in "Saving Private Ryan." He does well although I couldn't put aside the association with Roger Maris. That can be a curse in acting: You make such an indelible impression in a role, it sticks. I needed a "program," in effect, to pick out Pepper in "True Grit." He plays "Lucky" Ned Pepper. He's a bad guy. The makeup department concealed the Yankee slugger Maris.
Bad guys and good guys appear on the screen in the standard western format. Boomers like me were bombarded with this when we were kids. It's fascinating how prevalent the western genre was for a time in television. An early standard was set by "The Rifleman." Pepper was good at playing a baseball player but Chuck Connors actually was a baseball player. Connors played "The Rifleman" like no other actor could have. He used the lever-action rifle with the big and distinctive lever, remember? This was a TV western in its most pure form. A sense of right and wrong had to be established with law enforcement often threadbare with its resources. Strong men who were good with a gun were needed.
In the 2010 "True Grit" we have Bridges as the crusty, earthy and presumably smelly U.S. Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn. Definitely good with a gun, even while riding a horse and having the reins in his teeth. You wouldn't want to do that today, not with what dentists charge (LOL).
I didn't see the 1969 "True Grit" with John Wayne but I saw the Mad Magazine satire. The Wayne character loses his teeth (in the satire).
This confrontation appears again in the 2012 version. Bridges is successful taking on the bad guys. It doesn't seem plausible. Four guys on horseback certainly could have overcome one, lest they were hopelessly incompetent. But this is the movies. The Imperial storm troopers can't shoot straight. Does anything ever really change?
"True Grit" is a western that has predictable scenarios like this. One critic observed that it's a classic western in which we see "crime and then punishment." Westerns have a moral to the story. Good overcomes evil. Right trumps wrong.
The problem for us boomers, who were showered with such stories as from "Bonanza" when young, is that we learned the real world could be a pretty harsh place with plenty of bad stuff prevailing. Tops on this list would be the Viet Nam War. Second might be the persistence of the Jim Crow South until finally it could be put down. We saw injustice, illogic and mendacity. Why couldn't our leaders show the same wisdom as the fictional Lucas McCain as played by Connors? Why couldn't we have had a guiding hand as might have been applied by Lorne Greene of Bonanza? James Arness supplied wisdom with his character. But those guys were all fiction. We got alienated by the real world.
Maybe this is why westerns went into decline, seeming passe and dated. My formative years were when the most virtuous thing a young person could do was to protest an official policy of our duly elected U.S. leaders, that policy being to prosecute and escalate the war in Indochina. Morals became something other than black and white to us.
In "True Grit" the delineation is clear. "Tom Chaney" is the baddest guy. He's played by Josh Brolin. It would seem a major actor wasn't even needed for this role. He hardly makes an impression. Central casting could have been tapped. "Chaney" of course meets his just punishment. It's dealt by Mattie Ross who is played by Steinfeld. Steinfeld was reportedly chosen from literally thousands of hopefuls for the role. It wasn't long before I realized she was stealing this movie from the crusty but perhaps overdone character of Cogburn.
Ross is in her mid-teens, precocious and crafty, and sets out to avenge the death of her father. I'm reminded of an old joke about the three-legged dog who hops onto a saloon stool and says, "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw." The joke is inspired, of course, by the tired strain of vengeance stories that fill the old west genre.
The "True Grit" plot is really unremarkable. It comes from the 1968 novel written by Charles Portis. There are countless novels set in the wild west of course. It would be interesting to pick a western novel purely at random and then have a big budget movie made from it.
Steinfeld is effective and charming as she recites lines as if trying to win an award in high school one-act play competition. The script reads like a very formal play. The dialogue isn't close to being spontaneous most of the time. But that's deliberate. It's supposed to add appeal to the movie. That it does. Still, the plot seems tired and undistinctive to me.
"Nothing very startling happens," one reviewer wrote.
I guess what I'm suggesting is that the movie is overrated. Hollywood likes it because "True Grit" had its brand, as it were, owing to the 1969 movie with the legendary Wayne.
Wayne was like a total anachronism to us boomers in the late '60s. We have revised our thoughts about that. He once starred in the jingoistic "The Green Berets." We have forgiven him for that, I guess. Time heals all wounds? We prefer remembering him as the heroic U.S. Marshal Cogburn with the reins in his teeth.
We learn in the new movie that "LaBoeuf" is pronounced "La-beef." Steinfeld intones that nicely, addressing the character who is played by Matt Damon. Damon like Bridges has much better aim than the bad guys. In one scene he shoots a guy off his horse from a very long distance. It's remindful of what Clint Eastwood did in "Joe Kidd." The "Imperial storm troopers" just don't have a chance.
"LaBoeuf" joins Cogburn in tracking down the low-life hombres who have retreated into Oklahoma Indian territory of the 1870s. We were bound to be reminded of the Civil War. Cogburn and LaBoeuf are both former Confederates, one having fought in a formal unit (LaBoeuf in the Army of Northern Virginia) and the other, let's just say, in a less formal one. They have some issues about this.
I guess former Confederates are more interesting characters than those boring Union folks who just did what it took to win. The Confederates were rebels. Hollywood loves rebels. "The Outlaw Josey Wales" was a wayward Confederate after the war. Clint Eastwood brought Wales to life in a movie that was almost stolen by Chief Dan George. The old South was gone with the wind but it sure stays alive on movie screens.
Hollywood has an interesting way of presenting Confederates. They are honorable men, good fighters, who were just products of their culture. They struggle to adapt to losing. Many headed west. They can't be faulted.
Steinfeld as Ross is charming and attractive. At the end there's an adult actress whom we're supposed to buy as the adult Ross. The adult seems a bit sullen and resigned, like a "spinster" (as they used to say), not the plucky and industrious adolescent who charmed us. I'd venture to say it's a mistake for movies to use different actors playing the same character. It may be necessary but it's risky. The continuity is threatened.
As the movie wound down, it seemed dreary. We saw the desolate and raw nature of the old West. We saw considerable suffering in the name of making sure the "bad guy," Chaney, got killed. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go to. It was also vigilante justice - no legal proceedings or conviction. The plot seemed unimaginative. I'm left thinking many other western novels could have been tapped.
I could be more blunt, suggesting this movie was just a big "sell" by Hollywood. There were plots in the old "Rifleman" that had more intriguing twists, I seem to recall.
"Big names" were inserted and we're supposed to be enthralled. Bridges as a crusty, cantankerous character was supposed to wow us. A girl acting as if in a one-act play was supposed to wow us.
Wayne ensured that "True Grit" would have its place in the Hollywood pantheon. For my money, I'll take Barry Pepper as Roger Maris.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org