Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"God's Gonna Cut You Down"

It's not often that Abby and I pay to go see a movie, especially not at the first-run theater and especially not now that we subscribe to Netflix. But a well-timed NPR interview with the Coen brothers, a love for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Raising Arizona, and a free Friday night all conspired to get us in the door for True Grit (though just at the buzzer, thanks to a slow-moving Portillo's run). It was money well spent.

True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, whose father was killed while trying to help Tom Chaney get back on his feet. Mattie's father was killed in a town far from home, and none of the townspeople care to do anything about it. Mattie travels to the town to take care of her father's affairs, which unbeknownst to her mother include tracking down her father's murderer and making sure that he is brought to justice. (I thought the trailer's use of Johnny Cash's version of "God's Gonna Cut You Down" was a perfect choice for this movie: "You can run on for a long, long time...but sooner or later God'll cut you down.")

Justice is hard to come by, and Mattie hires a trigger-happy U.S. marshal, Rooster Cogburn, to track down her father's killer. To ensure that he does as he's asked and doesn't spend the bounty money on drink, Mattie joins him on the manhunt. Add in an over-serious Texas ranger also on Chaney's trail, and what results is a journey that is by turns hilarious, violent, and poignant, but always entertaining.

What I liked about this movie is that there aren't many easy answers. On the one hand, I wanted to root for Mattie, even though her version of justice is in question. On the other hand, what is the cost of her revenge? Is it worth it? The movie felt like it could have easily ended up in either sentimentality or over-the-top, violent "hyper-realism." Instead, it steered a middle course that kept it from being shipwrecked. For a movie with such a weighty premise, the movie had a surprising amount of levity, making it enjoyable to watch.

One of the mitigating factors in the movie that kept it from feeling bogged down with seriousness was the music. The story itself is a revenge story, but at the beginning of the movie, Mattie narrates something like, "Chaney thought he was free...but nothing is free except the grace of God." This dissnonace between stated purpose and belief is carried through the whole movie. I didn't catch this until the end, but the music through much of the movie is old hymns reworked--this while on the trail of a murderer. The contrast between Mattie's desire for revenge and the grace of God in the music is striking.

I'll also mention briefly that the performances in the movie are some of the best I've seen in recent memory (and I saw Iron Man 2). Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon are fantastic as Cogburn and the ranger, respectively. But as good as they are, and as good as the rest of the supporting cast is, the shining star in the movie is the girl who plays Mattie Ross. I don't know where they found a fourteen-year-old who could act like that, but kudos to the Coens for bringing her to the screen. The movie wouldn't have worked without her performance.

Watching True Grit was an excellent way to spend an evening. Did anyone else see it? Thoughts?


  1. We loved this movie! I also love Cohen movies, and Jeff Daniels is one of my favorite actors. I'm not really a fan of westerns, but this western was different in that it was so poignant and contradictory in a true-life way (i.e. the super-religious girl intending to and following through with murder, the drunk man who kills with indiscretion but spends hours of his strength running with a child in his arms to save her life, and the ending). The end was fantastically realistic, I thought. How many of us go through incredibly moving and life-changing experiences with people whom we never really see again and who don't factor into our lives after the fact?

  2. That's a good way to put it--"contradictory in a true-life way." I've often felt that humans, even the most conscientious, lack consistency. This movie does a good job of naming the paradox of human nature.

    I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to seeing it again at the second-run theater. :-)

  3. I saw it and enjoyed it. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had different expectations going in. '3:10 to Yuma' (the new one with Bale and Crowe) is one of my favorite movies and one of the best Westerns ever (re)made. It struck a chord with me because it was a bit more real, the characters were profound and battled with both sides of desire and in the end not all was sugar and butterflies. I expected a bit darker 'Grit' than what it was. However, this does not detract from the movie. It is still a great film and worth watching. I found myself laughing more than I expected thanks to Bridges' performance and I realized that I had started caring for the characters, too. What left me only slightly disappointed, though, was, being a John Wayne movie, albeit a darker John Wayne movie, it seemed a bit all happy ending like many other cut-and-dry Wayne movies. But then again, I think this is personal preference (I tend to prefer movies with sad endings) and after reading the other comments, a good point was made in that at the end, final words were never exchanged. As time marches on, I think I appreciate the film more, just like I did with the characters in the movie.