Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Call off the dogs (True Grit)

If there was one drawback to my whole recent “watch more westerns, but only the good ones” approach to my Netflix queue, it was the distinct possibility that at some point I might hit upon a western that was so incredible, it would cause me to throw up my hands and say (all R.-Kelly-via-Aziz-Ansari style) “No-o-o-o-o one can top that! I’m out!”

The Coen Brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit (recent assignment for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club!) may very well be that incredible.

It’s superlative in all the ways you would expect from a modern cinematic gem, of course: it looks gorgeous, creating a historical frontier setting that a viewer can absolutely get lost in; the story is simple but utterly compelling; the acting is phenomenal (and I will get back to that in a little bit, below); and the script is wall-to-wall crackling, stylized dialogue. If anyone has any objections to this True Grit, I imagine it might stem from them perceiving the spoken script as hyper-stylized like that’s a bad thing. But I am inordinately fond of miniature musical-sounding monologues whether or not they bear any superficial resemblance to “how people really talk” so I was highly enamored with every word.

Good writing doesn’t get very far without good delivery, and True Grit has talent to spare in every frame. I’m generally a fan of Matt Damon but I was impressed moreso than usual with him as LaBoeuf, particularly the fact that he has to spend the back half of the movie with a ridiculous speech impediment after nearly biting his tongue in half during a shootout. Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is simply awesome, owning the character for all it’s worth. But arguably the biggest revelation is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. I vaguely remembered lots of fuss being made over her when the film originally came out, and now I know that all of it was entirely well-deserved.

(Since this is a remake of a famous movie which in turn was based on a novel, both of those being about 45 years old at this point, I feel like I don’t really need to be too cautious about spoilers; but then again, I had never seen or read the original source material myself. And therefore I don’t even know in what particulars, if any, the 2010 True Grit departs and contains its own unique twists or surprises. So, ultimately, proceed at your own risk.)

I often find myself thinking of my son when I watch movies, in particular thinking about whether or not he will grow up liking the same kinds of movies I like now, or the same kinds of movies I liked as a kid, and whether or not he and I will bond over watching movies together, my old favorites or new ones we discover together, and whathaveyou. You may note that I say my son in particular, as opposed to my daughter, which has various root causes. Part of it is simply that she’s still too young to watch movies or tv, and thus I have no experiential basis for thinking of her in that context; she may end up not really being into video entertainment all that much. And part of it has to do with pre-existing family dynamics, and the fact that my wife and I watch plenty of tv together but only rarely do we settle down for a movie, which has everything to do with my wife’s attention span and free time for long movies being constantly adversely impacted by her demanding work schedule, something my daughter won’t have to contend with herself while she lives under my roof, I assume, so that’s not a fair model for projecting the little girl’s tendencies, but I admit I fall into reinforcing the “little guy takes after dad, little girl takes after mom” paradigm more often than not. And also, I tend to really love sci-fi and shoot-em-up’s and all the stereotypically guy-oriented genres, so again, I tend to imagine those being common interests I might share with my son rather than my daughter (not that I intend to steer both children in opposite directions, and not that I want it to go down like that; it’s just what I expect by default assumption).

But on the other hand, more and more I’m on the lookout for entertainment that might conceivably mean something to my daughter and that will be good for her and her self-esteem. I worry about the Princess conundrum, obviously. I worry about raising her as a competent, self-reliant human being in a world where the vast majority of our cultural touchstone stories treat females as accessories and appendages to male protagonists. If any good can come out of my voracious consumption of pop culture, it’s that maybe I can sift through all of it and pick out the good stuff to pass along to my daughter, where the value of good is essentially female-friendly to female-empowering.

And so along comes Mattie Ross in True Grit and she is completely fantastic. She’s precocious, fearless, opinionated, a believer in justice who knows right from wrong. She’s also got flaws, as she’s a bit naïve about the world yet prone to off-putting bluntness in dealing with other people. But she feels real, strong and competent but not in some exaggerated goddess kind of way. And she’s not saddled with an obligatory love story that ties everything off by suggesting her happily ever after was entirely dependent on finding Prince Charming. She wants to settle the score for the murder of her father, and she does so, not alone, but nobody sidelines her and does it for her, either. It may seem very strange given the centrality of her father’s murder, but I got very caught up in thinking that this was a movie I would love to watch with my daughter, when she gets older, because Mattie Ross by all rights should be an iconic role model for girls.

Of course, Mattie ends up getting bitten by a rattlesnake and the dramatic climax of the end of the movie comes from Rooster’s desperate race to get her life-saving medical attention. He literally rides her horse Blackie to death in the process, then carries Mattie on foot from there. It’s powerful, moving stuff but a little girl’s dead horse does put a little damper on my enthusiasm for pushing the whole story on my own little girl. (Also, Mattie’s arm has to be amputated to save her life, but she still manages to live a full life after that. Good lesson about adversity, but … pretty dark.)

Still, we're well into the realm of extra credit at this point when we're debating whether or not a movie might have the additional benefit of inspiring any of my children after it has thoroughly won me over, which True Grit in no uncertain terms did.

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