Monday, March 28, 2011

Better than the book. There, I said it. Don't like it? Talk to the guy in the bearskin.

"Either o' you in need o'... medical attention?"
Ed Corbin in the greatest performance in film history
(Image courtesy Paramount Pictures & Tattered Banners)

Earlier this month I finally got around to seeing the Coen brothers' latest, True Grit.  Even I was surprised at how long this took me to do, despite having wanted to see it since long before opening day, which was Christmas.  But that often happens with me and big mainstream movies - it feels like I'll have a million chances to see it, while every week there are tempting little rarities beckoning from every repertory screening venue in New York City.  There are Icelandic silent comedies and Iranian science fiction musicals to see, dammit!  (I've actually never heard of an example of either, but if they turned up, I would pay to see them without hesitation.)

Regardless of why the buildup took so long, the payoff did not disappoint.  Sue me, but I liked it even better than Charles Portis's cult classic 1968 novel, which I'd made a point of reading beforehand and found very fine.  The Coens faithfully retain most of the virtues of Portis, but the addition of thick layers of visual and aural texture just enhances them.  The author’s telling of the story in the deadpan first-person voice of Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old girl on a hunt after her father's killer through wild Western territory, was an inspired choice, exquisitely carried out.  But Mattie's matter-of-factness meant that there wasn’t much dwelling on atmosphere.  The Coens, remarkably, retain a sense of Mattie’s voice and point of view without much resort to voiceover narration from the novel - largely through the medium of Hailee Steinfeld, the 15-year-old outta-nowhere star.  Steinfeld inhabits the unnervingly self-possessed Mattie with, well, unnerving self-possession; she rules most of the scenes she's in even when she's sharing them with a Jeff Bridges or a Matt Damon at their respective bests, just as her character continually bends jaded, leather-tough adults around her finger through sheer will.  The paradoxically tough-as-tree-bark gaze of her big, soft eyes in her baby-fat-rounded face is the sound of Mattie's voice translated into an image.

But on top of this, the movie adds the feel of the dust on our skin and in our hair, the bite of the prairie wind, the smell of men, old and not-so-old, rotting from the inside and covered in the detritus of their hardscrabble lives.  Much of the credit for this, of course, belongs to the brothers' typically painstaking visual and sound design.  But no small part has to go to their seldom-erring instinct for casting, which as usual goes beyond the leads.  Even in bit parts, the Coens scatter around perfect faces and voices that don't look and sound like "movie people."

Best of all is some guy named Ed Corbin, who totally looks like an  Ed Corbin, and, as the bearskin-sporting, self-described doctor with just one brief scene, may be the greatest thing to happen ever (EVER!) in a movie aside from the monkey guard in Toy Story 3.  In a movie that's practically an essay in the many possible variations on “thick-tongued, rumbly-chested Western drawl” that can come out of the male human face, he towers above them all.

True Grit the movie is also a lovely demonstration of the way that authors and their screen adaptors, so often placed at odds by commentators, can help each other out.  Much of Portis’s dry humor is enhanced when presented through the voices and faces of these actors, while the Coens' often overweening love of cartoon grotesquery is reined in by Portis’s hard-eyed reserve.  On the evidence of this and the even more breathtaking No Country for Old Men, maybe the Coens ought to stick to hard-bitten literary adaptations and leave off the gooney comedies.  I might start to love them again the way I did back in the days of Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink.

[UPDATE: Here's a short, entertaining L.A. Times piece about Ed Corbin and his appearance in the movie.]
(Image courtesy Simon & Schuster and Encyclopedia of Arkansas)

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