Happy New Year to all, hope your sidewalks are shoveled, your cars dug out, your heaters working, and your new year starting off with hope and brightness and clarity and all good stuff.
I’m not much for celebrating New Year’s Eve – amateur night in bars is not my style. My celebration started on the first and second days of January 2011. I gave myself a movie for each. One I looked forward to because I like the Coen Brothers, the other because a friend of mine is in it.
January 1, 2011: I came away dissatisfied from the Coen Brothers’ remake of “True Grit.” Both the original film and this one were based on the same original source material, a novel by Charles Portis. I freely admit that although I remember that I saw the original film, I really don’t remember much about it, so my dissatisfaction is not comparative to the original. Remakes on principal annoy me, but I trusted that the Coen Brothers had some reason to remake this one.
That settled, now what? The story is filmed beautifully, what with vast and imposing spaces of the post Civil War west showing quite clearly how very small and powerless we all are. It’s a frightening place from our vantage point of “civilization,” and those who survived it may not have been 100% or even 99% pure. This makes for lots of interesting character possibilities, and we get those.
True Grit has a clear story line. Characters are introduced, sketched, shaded, filled in with quiet natural tones. A backstory is provided, a premise, and a goal for journeys’ ends. All that was necessary to accomplish was accomplished, and that we are not altogether happy with all the characters’ ends at the close of the film doesn’t mean the story wasn’t told, or that its end wasn’t reasonable.
Then what was amiss?
I pondered this on a walk after the film, then an hour or so of scribbling left me still vaguely dissatisfied without knowing why. The acting is uniformly excellent. The script gives Jeff Bridges as U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn a great many witty lines, and Bridges is masterful. He didn’t have to win me over after John Wayne – I am not now nor have I ever been a fan of the man. Bridges’ Cogburn showed the unfunny side of the drunken lawman, but Cogburn, and Bridges, can spin a yarn, so we’ll all follow along. This is a plum role for Bridges, and he milked it and played it and is superb. He is rough and gruff, his timing is right on, and his odd chivalry toward Mattie in contrast to his demeanor is intriguing.
The time is sometime in the 1870s, with winter coming on; the place Fort Smith, Arkansas, bordering with Oklahoma, then “Indian Country.” The film’s opening and closing scenes are narrated by an adult Mattie Ross, whose reasonable father was unreasonably gunned down by an angry and very stupid drunk with more than one name depending on what state or territory was looking for him. Was that not, after all, part of the point in taking part in the opening of a new frontier: creating a new identity, and persona? Possibly for people capable of thought, but that would be a different book. The killer in this story is easily identified and well known. Everyone in Fort Smith knew the fellow as Tom Chaney, whereas the Texas Ranger called him Chesford. Mattie’s father was gunned down away from home, so no one is outraged and out for blood. Daughter Mattie rides up on the train, a proper, slim young girl of 14, with a black servant. She is determined to get justice for her father.
Hailee Steinfeld was just perfect, remarkably repressed, strong, simple, and true as Mattie. The girl’s a powerhouse and I look forward to watching her grow up in coming years and films.
Matt Damon was the amusing and annoying Texas Ranger Mr. LaBoeuf (pronounced LaBeef), although this particular Texas Ranger was, well, rather odd. Granted the character was originally from Virginia, not Texas, but he appeared out of place.
Barry Pepper as a dangerous and sometimes gentlemanly outlaw was excellent, and Josh Brolin as the very stupid killer adds to his growing list of finely crafted disparate characters.
Despite the many fine performances in the film, it felt like tiny slivers of the story were left out, adding up to a whole missing something terribly important in between the lines. And the fact that the child Mattie kept reverting to statements of law and righteousness, assuming everyone around her would relinquish their intents of wrongdoing in face of her logic and purity, and almost everyone did as she wished, was bothersome. The proper speech patterns lacking contractions of many characters smacked of actors reading out of an Owen Wister story. Perhaps something between the vicious language of “Deadwood” and the proper language of “The Virginian” was needed.
The panorama of the unsettled west fills a viewer with awe. To be alone – heaven forbid without a healthy horse! -- in that territory is tantamount to a death sentence. No wonder horse theft was a hanging offense. Oddly it appeared to be a big deal that Tom had ridden into the Indian Country, when the dangers were all from white folk and Nature.
“True Grit” was made up of fine bits and pieces, moments, performances which added up to a lot of pleasing elements in this film. But not a whole. Something was missing.
January 2, 2011: I think tonight, after seeing “The Fighter,” I know why “True Grit” did not work for me. The journeys of the latter were arduous, physically challenging and dangerous, and yet… there were no surprises. The journey was hard, and losses were many, but the protagonists ended up pretty much where I expected them to.
Not so in “The Fighter.” The journeys are arduous, physically challenging and dangerous, but “Nature” is not the enemy. The action of this story takes place in “civilized” cities and towns in modern times. Apparently “The Fighter” is based on a true story, but I don’t know it – nor, I suspect, would anyone outside Massachusetts who didn’t follow boxing -- so there were no foregone conclusions. Director David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” surprised me. For one thing, it’s a “boxing movie,” and I liked it. And hated it. And liked it.
Christian Bale gives an absolutely brilliant, scintillating, heart-wrenching performance as the junkie ex-fighter Dicky Eklund. Mark Wahlberg does fine work as the downtrodden and put-upon younger brother Micky Ward, also a fighter, who hasn’t got a chance in hell with Dicky hanging around his neck. Which of them is the title role? That’s up to the viewer.
Micky Ward finally does amount to something which he freely admits was due to Dicky’s teachings. This crowns his achievements with honesty and humility, and one wonders how this nice guy came out of this family. Wahlberg’s Micky Ward grows up in the film. Everything is against Micky, the entire town of Lowell, Massachusetts, weighs on his shoulders, his huge trashy family drains the life from him. But he makes it. That’s a storyline that has worked since stories were first told around a dying campfire.
The miraculous thing, though, the journey, the change, is Bale’s Dicky. His portrayal of the has-been fighter who has devolved into a crack addict is harrowing and infuriating. Dicky is hateful, as is his willfully blind and trashy mother Alice (a terrific performance by Melissa Leo). We root for Micky to be free of these people, but he is too kind and weak, so the only way Micky can be free is for Dicky to destroy himself and end up in jail. He is still the cock of the walk there, he still demands the spotlight and the focus, it’s always all about him. But he does straighten up. He kicks his addiction, and he stays clean once out of prison. The amazing journey is not the hero’s journey. It’s his big brother’s journey, acquiescing to other people’s rules and discipline while instilling his own, stepping out of the spotlight, staying on its shadowy edges just close enough to give his brother the extra push he needs to fulfill his dream. Which is also Dicky’s dream, and the brothers’ mother’s dream, and the dream of Lowell, Massachusetts.
I don’t like boxing. I find it an ugly “sport,” I find the people watching it and cheering it to be vulgar, horrible creatures, shouting for damage to be done to another human being just to satisfy their bloodlust, while being sure they don’t take any risks themselves. The spectacle is revolting. And yet, and yet, here’s “another boxing movie” that is about much more.
And maybe that’s what was missing from “True Grit.” Maybe Rooster Cogburn proved he had true grit, but who doubted it? What did he have to prove to whom? Were any of his actions in any way surprising? Were any of Mr. LaBoeuf’s actions surprising? Were any of Mattie’s? Not really. There were changes in these people’s lives, and Mattie’s changes and growth were accelerated, certainly. But was any one of them a different person (including all the dead people) than they were when we met them? I think not.
I have not read the novel True Grit. Maybe the flaw I see in the 2010 version of the film was in the 1969 version, and maybe it’s in the novel. It’s an adventure. Mattie’s goal is to see justice done to the murderer of her father. She would accept society’s justice of a trial and a hanging, unlikely as that would be, and certainly takes it into her own very capable hands when that is required. Is this a surprise? No, it’s a foregone conclusion.
“The Fighter” is a drama. And it works. Excellent performances all around – including my friend Steven Barkhimer (misspelled as ‘Barkheimer’ in the film’s closing credits!!) as an HBO producer of a documentary about crack addicts – including Dicky. Amy Adams does good work as Micky’s courageous (when you see Micky’s family of sisters, you’ll understand that) girlfriend, who gives him the confidence and strength he needs to stand up to his family; Jack McGee is excellent as Micky’s intimidated but always there and solid dad, George Ward.
Interestingly, the two characters I disliked most in the film, Alice and Dicky, lead me to laud those two performances with superlatives. Melissa Leo’s Alice was as unmotherly as a woman with nine children can get, she brought out strong emotions in me -- I hated her almost as much as I hated junkie Dicky. And the daughters she raised! They are why humankind invented birth control.
Mr. Bale is an actor who immerses himself in his roles. Here he is gaunt, broken, his eyes haunted. A young cousin of mine is a stepdancer, and I’ve seen him dance around the house instead of walking, rehearsing his choreography. Bale’s Dicky moves his body as if he’s in a ring, his shoulders moving forward, to the side, back, his hands are always boxing, jabbing. He looks at people sideways for years; by the end, he looks directly into his brother’s face as their goals are truly joined. He’s riveting.
An interesting start to the new year for me: A film for which I had some expectations didn’t meet them; a film I expected to dislike surprised me.
“The Fighter” has lots of grit. Go for it.
~ Molly Matera, signing off. Those kittens have been doing something all the while I've been writing this...