True Grit and New Methods to Classical Western
Since the Western genre is now public property to the few who remember its hold on America, the stalwart genre only returns to screen when people believe they can find new ways to create aspects of originalism which went undiscovered by previous filmmakers. Between the 1930s and 50s, Westerns were everywhere, but they were beset by standard of Hollywood approach. No film was going to show shades of American historical underbelly so when the 1960s came and filmmakers were allowed for more permissive leniency, they took it to help rewrite an age old story. The early stories were all myth and no reality. The new filmmakers wanted to heighten the strands of reality. Sometimes, like the recent Australian film, The Proposition, the sense of reality was heightened to a thematic level of importance. That approach hollowed out its story for theme possibilities in story, but every film has its own prescription.
Recently, the Coen brothers cast their hand on the genre by releasing True Grit. Like other remakes of old Hollywood films (this one starred John Wayne and was released in 1969), the new version says it wants to honor the original story more (both are adaptation) since a John Wayne film has to have Hollywood tendencies. For right now, I don’t care about that argument, but it looks the Coens were drawn to the story because of it’s dialogue approach to storytelling. The characters are vivid in their interactions. For a simple story, it allows the scenes to bleed into unexpected areas of comedy. When Peter Fonda made The Hired Hand after Easy Rider, he wanted to make a true to form Western of simple poetry and exposition. From what I can tell, the Coens want make a Western of uncomfortable comedy mixed with visions of harsh reality. As it goes, every neo-Western has its vision for seeing the West.
In likely more credit to the novel of the same name it was based on, the story reminds me of a lot of personal intangibles McCabe and Mrs. Miller tried to enforce into a classical Western story. Robert Altman’s interest was in documenting life of everyday citizens so he could convince viewers that the world of big cowboy hats wasn’t common. In True Grit, you have a girl who hires a federal marshal to hunt her father’s killer. Sounds standard enough, but the federal marshal encompasses everything which seems counter to a hero. Played by Jeff Bridges, he is a drunk who sleeps in a back room of a store and doesn’t know where his next dollar will come from. Instead of show luster, he projects sloth. In the journey to finding the killer, the action along the way allows the story the time to find a lot of unexpected knots of realism to alter Western lore. The protagonists meet a medicine man who rides with a full bear skin (including head) over his body during winter. They also meet other cast of characters to show the bottom level of poverty which was the reality for most people at the time.
I enjoyed the film, but I wonder if I should compliment the original author more than the Coens. Their finest moment in the film was the first shot and then they didn’t even try a shot afterward to contend with the beauty or interest of that shot. It’s a showmanship movie for exaggerated dialogue. Peckinpah used to say the biggest hindrance against Westerns was their dialogue and inability to align itself with how people talked. Generally, Westerns were too stiff. Here they are too expressive. I’m a fan of Westerns in good films and literature, but nobody has talked as vividly about everything in such a consistent manner as they do in this film. It’s mainly due to the lead girl in this film, but it reminds me of a Tarantino approach to have characters constantly be able to talk around any situation. It can be enjoyable, but it can also be intrusive. The intrusion here is that the top heavy focus on dialogue keeps the movie from developing a pedigree for themes or other elements of story which allude to more than what’s on the surface.
When I started to watch the movie, I was reminded of one of my favorite Westerns, Hombre, with the tone and simplicity of the story. I was very happy, but the film never extended itself out to be revelatory about anything interesting as it developed. Hombre managed to keep a naturalistic tone and also be reflective. True Grit managed to stay interesting for dialogue but make me feel that I enjoyed the movie without finding it to be very memorable. The dialogue is good for style sake, but it acts as if it’s catering to a full realistic evaluation of a situation. It’s not. The dialogue feels expressive as The Sweet Smell of Success, but it isn’t nearly as inventive as that film. It also isn’t about high life New York City from the point of view of publicists and columnists. True Grit wants notice of express humility in story and characters without knowing to the full tone of how to go about it.
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