Tonight I had the chance to see “True Grit” at an early showing at the Angelika, and was surprised. Most movies I loved this year have been ones I had little expectations with beforehand: Inception, Scott Pilgrim, and the social network are three examples.
This movie did not transcend the genre of a western movie but sank into it, grew into a massive tree, and people took it as a part of the historical landscape of fine place to visit. The movie felt human, American, and deeply honest in what it saw as the world these people found themselves in; their lack of self-awareness was incredibly refreshing and most likely accurate. Having grown up in the cities and terrain where the movie is set, I felt the call of my past (my family has lived in AK, LA, MS area since the Civil War) sit down on my back porch and tell the story. And telling stories is what the characters did. In the American South we do that sort of thing, sit around and talk in our own distinct way. There was violence in the movie, yet the talking is what stood out, the characters were so articulate it was stunning to watch. The idea that we are far more advanced than previous times is absurd, especially if we read the common letters written by people of earlier times. Obama might be an articulate president, but he is nothing compared to most presidents of the 19th century when it comes to delivering a speech or communicating. Back then it was a subject like anything else, and the tremors of this are felt in the characters of the movie, speaking in arguments and points and rebuttals. We live in a time when language is changing from globalisation in a way it hasn’t before, yet we still don’t have the grasp of language as they did 150 years ago. People communicated in the movie, and the main character, a fourteen year old girl from Arkansas could run circles around most her age today, though I’ll admit her character is an anomaly in the world in which the movie takes place.
The story is of a young girl whose father is killed by a somewhat well known thug of the day and she hires a marshall to find him and kill him. She fights people all along the way and in many forms to stand up for what she sees is good, and largely prevails with a bleedingly hard effort and resolve as the underpinnings of her work. The man she hires is a drunk and a man nearly as filthy as the men he hunts and arrests, but there is a distinction between him and the villains that comes out and is crucial. The exteriors may be similar, but when pushed to it, we show who we are and what we care about. The difference between the good characters and the bad are this resilience that is often hidden side of love we have trouble facing in our day.
Every character except a few, some on the good side of the law and others not, have dignity in this movie, a trait often missed in our reading of previous times. People have morals, even the worst of them, and they see each other as human, and because of it can see when someone is being less than that. It’s clear in the movie. The villains aren’t monsters, they’re confused, impulsive, erratic creatures who are bad- sometimes it’s best to let it stand at that. When you meet the bad men they’re chasing it’s obvious they are not a sophisticated assassins (the good make far better executors than the evil), but scared men who flee. Their running is what must be overcome because it is their strength and they know it, for when they are caught most of their power is extinguished.
The performances were excellent with Bridges’ portrayal being a bit too much at times (though it works) and Hailee Steinfeld playing the leading role of Mattie Ross takes the show. She is a joy to watch, and her work on being Mattie Ross sits in your mind long after the movie ends. Matt Damon does well in a supporting role as many of us don’t doubt he would. He’s a versatile actor and shows it here.
The striking part of this movie, though, and anyone who studies 19th century American culture will inevitably have to face is the vein of religion running through it. The word “Methodist” is mentioned at least three times- circuit riders, preachers, and other references to the denomination are accurate- it was the dominant Protestant denomination of the 19th century in the US. People unabashedly mention God with a backbone and real meat on it, mentioning the name like they’d spent their lives with it as they did. The Coen bros. do this well and I appreciate that about them- they let religion out of its cage without putting a leash on it or beating it unjustly. I can think of several movies they’ve directed that involves religion as a significant part of the plot. Religion is much better as a supporting actress than a lead. The glare is overwhelming when it becomes the main and only topic of a story. Religion loves its members more than itself.
I highly recommend this movie.