Interstellar

Space magic solves everything

interstellarChristopher Nolan’s Interstellar starts as simply another Dead Mom narrative with a throwaway title, orbiting a part-time Boring Hero with a heart of gold who only wants the best for his children.  This character, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who apparently has no first name, reminisces about the days when he was a NASA test pilot, before humanity screwed up the Earth so badly that we were forced to become an entirely agrarian society.  He speaks most of this in overt exposition to Donald (John Lithgow), his father-in-law, who shares a rural homestead with Cooper and his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and (more importantly) Murphy, also known as Murph (Mackenzie Foy, who will eventually grow up to be Jessica Chastain).  Murph is a borderline genius for her age, and her current project is an attempt to scientifically prove that a “ghost,” for lack of a better word, is sending her messages by altering the dust on her bedroom floor and knocking books off her shelf.  Cooper and Murph, bored with the farming life and convinced (whether through blind hope or something else) that the planet can be saved, follow coordinates provided by the “ghost,” which lead them to the HQ of an underground organization that turns out to be the thought-to-be-defunct NASA.

There’s some interesting background here.  In the gap since the golden age of space travel, the Apollo missions (including the first moon landing) have been discredited as clever propaganda, and Murph’s schoolteachers consider her insistence that humanity has traveled to the moon analogous to sharing porn with her classmates.  The idea is to encourage children to want to work on saving this planet, rather than fantasize about traveling away from it.  Very good point, actually.  But the film does not want us to side with the teachers, and makes quite clear to us that Earth is doomed.  At the new NASA HQ, Cooper is convinced at ridiculous speed (considering the pacing up to this point) by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his brilliant daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), to pilot an incredibly advanced spaceship, the Endurance (modeled after the International Space Station) to travel through a wormhole believed to have been placed near Saturn by another galactic civilization that wishes to save humanity, and through this wormhole, find a planet that can support human life.  A crew of other astronauts named Edmunds, Miller, and Mann (the latter’s picture is mysteriously the only one not shown) previously traveled through the wormhole to investigate three potential candidate planets, and the deal was this: if they landed on a planet that was not viable, they would remain there and perish so that no resources would be wasted rescuing them.  Cooper and Amelia, along with Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) and two robots called TARS and CASE, will visit these planets one at a time and confirm their viability.  The drama at home, however, trumps all of the sci-fi prep: Murph is devastated that Cooper is abandoning her, and it’s hard not to be on her side, even after all the dire hypothesizing by the roundtable of talking heads.  The scene in which Cooper accepts the mission is needed to begin the film’s main arc, but it’s a synthetic transition, as rushed and clumsy as an equal moment in a superhero origin story, complete with the audience realizing that this was a much better narrative before the hero gained his powers and everything went to sci-fi land.

Through one thing and another, the astronaut crew crosses the wormhole and visits Miller’s planet for only a few hours, though its proximity to a black hole causes time to pass much more quickly.  It’s close by and will not use much fuel to reach.  However, the classic “lost contact with operative” trope plays out predictably: long story short, Planet Miller is not viable.  It’s 100% ocean.  Nightmare fuel comes in the form of mountainesque tidal waves that seem to target whatever has just landed on the planet’s surface.  The whole scenario is not unlike similar planets seen in other sci-fi, including a Mass Effect mission (apparently, filmmaker after filmmaker underestimates how popular those games are).  Because of the time dilation, twenty-three years pass for Romilly, who is still onboard.  No word on what he ate and drank during that time.  It’s supposed to be a big moment, but the only difference in Romilly is that he’s grown a few gray beard hairs, plus he hasn’t figured out much of any use (not to mention that the film’s formula requires him to be the next bumped-off crew-member).

While all of this happens, Murph, now played by the prolific Jessica Chastain, remains on Earth, not knowing whether her father is alive, and still harboring a grudge for the way he left her.  One of the film’s strongest scenes involves Murph sending Cooper a message in which she reminds him of his promise to return home by the time the two of them are the same age – well, today, she’s the age he was when he left.  Outside of grieving over him, Murph has been working with NASA to figure out how humanity can collectively escape Earth’s gravitational pull if they indeed find another planet.  Brand, though, on his deathbed, admits that humanity can never escape without data from a singularity behind a black hole.  Murph reveals this to Amelia and Cooper, who argue about which planet to visit next, and ultimately decide on Mann, even though (or, on another level, specifically because) all narrative signs point to this being a terrible idea (see Principle of the Inept Adventurer).  Mann’s planet, of course, is a frozen wasteland, and Mann himself (played by Matt Damon) simply couldn’t go through with dying there per his mission, so he lied about the planet’s viability in order to be rescued.  Some truly terrific sequences, absent of the ridiculous CG most films would use, take place, and our characters are left with one choice: figure out some way to get behind the black hole and transmit the data back to Earth (did anyone think they wouldn’t have to do this?).

The film’s science, preposterous as its plot is, is relatively sound, especially considering that a cosmologist (Kip Thorne) birthed the idea for the film with producer Lynda Obst, and acted as consultant on it, often having to talk Nolan out of making the story any wackier.  While much of the space adventure is based upon hypotheticals (for example, an actual wormhole has never been observed, but given what we know about relativity and gravity, it is hypothetically possible).  The ultimate result, however, especially what’s behind the black hole’s event horizon, relies on molding the science around plot contrivance, so while watching Matthew McConaughey float around a five-dimensional space library wherein time is not linear is pretty satisfying in terms of achieving a profound conclusion to the “fi” questions of the film, it renders keeping track of the “sci” parts ineffectual.

The screenplay, penned by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, is much the same as any Dark Knight or Inception script.  No character speaks if it’s not either exposition or a seed planted for something later in the plot, and no one is ever wrong when they present some big idea (for example, Anne Hathaway’s character gives a lengthy and impassioned monologue about how “love” might be the key to solving everything in the universe because it’s an emotion/experience we don’t fully understand, before being dismissed by the predominately male crew).  Nolan’s oft-criticized female characters become more in Interstellar, but only marginally and not necessarily in the right way: it’s as if Nolan has responded to this criticism by having his female characters do more for the plot instead of actually characterizing them.  For example, Murph is continually emphasized as being the central character of the film, upon whom everything relies and whose intellect and accomplishments everyone reveres, but she actually doesn’t have many scenes by herself, and for being played by three exceptional actresses (the third being the magnificent Ellen Burstyn in a cameo), the only parts of her 80+ year life that are important enough to include in the film are the ones that revolve around her attachment to her father (read: Hollywood Daddy Issues).  We don’t see anything between Cooper leaving and Murph sending him a message for the first time (when she’s in her thirties).  We see nothing of her relationship with rando Getty (Topher Grace); just an impulsive kiss, and then it’s fifty years later and they have a gaggle of adult offspring.  Amelia, Hathaway’s character, the only female astronaut, operates entirely on emotion, in stark contrast to pragmatist Cooper, and she plays second fiddle to him throughout the journey (even if she ends up being right about which planet is best to visit, Cooper never acknowledges that he got someone killed and wasted valuable equipment and resources by heading to Mann’s planet when Amelia wanted to go to Edmunds’).  She’s also got that Ripley 2.0 hairdo going, similar to Sandra Bullock in last year’s Gravity (and it’s difficult not to compare that film to this one).  It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to placate those of us who consistently bemoan the absence of layered female characters in blockbuster films, but no amount of space stations named after Murph can stifle this question: why isn’t Murph the main character?  I.e. the astronaut who actually goes on the dangerous adventure to save humanity?  Jessica Chastain is one of the most adept and charismatic actors of any gender we have right now, and Anne Hathaway, juggernaut of nuance and onscreen honesty, is much more than a soapy foil to the brooding bro.  If we needed Murph on Earth, Amelia (or, say, Murph’s mother, if we needed Amelia in space) could easily have helmed the voyage.  Too often in Nolan’s films, the women are simply opposites of each other (e.g. Inception, wherein Marion Cotillard played a full-figured, exotic beauty against Ellen Page’s skinny teenage nerd/genius) who frame the male hero and affect him in the various ways he needs to be affected in order to keep, y’know, hero-ing.

Beyond that, while the film tries its hardest to dodge various genre trappings, it falls into twice as many and forgets about plenty of other ones.  It’s one thing to say your film is inspired by 2001 and Metropolis; it’s another to have the same basic thing happen at the end (think about the ways in which Dave transcends human existence, then watch Cooper’s tumble into the black hole again).  The film wants TARS and CASE to remind you of HAL, and thus fear that one of them will go rogue and try to murder the crew, while the dashing usual-lead Matt Damon is plotting carnage right there in front of you.  But none of this is surprising because virtually every sci-fi adventure since Event Horizon (and plenty before) has that character – the brilliant scientist, the “best of us,” who actually turns out to be a self-interested nut-job and tries to kill everyone – and from the moment Mann is mentioned, it’s pretty obvious that he’s the last person who’s going to be of any help (’cause this galaxy ain’t big enough for two rugged male leads).

Where Gravity’s most telling moments were silent shots of Sandra Bullock’s feet, Interstellar talks its themes at you.  All of the conversations are well-acted and nice to listen to, but they’re not actually conversational; rather, there is nothing said that you do not need to remember in order to “get it” later.  None of this is to say that the film is plodding, or trapped under mumble-science like Primer, or in any way difficult to understand, but it shelves itself next to a thousand family films with identical plots (and I understand why Nolan would want his film to be thought of amongst memories of Jurassic Park and Blade Runner, but one can do that without either remaking parts of them or defining the new film by what the old ones aren’t).

All said, I don’t have to do the usual roundup of unanswered/rhetorical/paradoxical questions I usually need to do with films like this (see Snowpiercer for perhaps the greatest litany so far) because Nolan takes every measure to ensure that the science (fictional or not) makes sense in-universe, and that the characters’ decisions (mostly) make sense in context, even if they’re not given much time to make them.  We’re invited to participate in the characters’ horror, guilt, and love, albeit only when convenient for what the filmmakers want us to care about, but it’s there on the table, whereas many genre filmmakers would withhold vital info for dramatic effect (a greenhorn’s flourish that accomplishes the exact opposite).  Furthermore, Chastain, McConaughey, and Hathaway believe their own characters, so as “stock” as they can be, it’s easy to believe in their existence – at least for a few hours.

Interstellar (2014); written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Anne Hathaway.

The Bourne Legacy

Nobody makes it over the mountain

The Bourne Legacy is a better film than the trailers may let on.  In fact, it’s a good deal better than either Supremacy or Ultimatum,wherein Matt Damon ran from one obscure European locale to another to escape something, presumably the contrived writing that resulted in the unforgivable demise of his romantic partner (Franka Potente) after the sweet and satisfying ending of the original film (which, for the record, also resulted in Damon claiming there wouldn’t be another Bourne film – just sayin’) as well as the inexplicable casting of Karl Urban as a Russian killing machine whom Bourne can’t bring himself to finish off even to avenge his girlfriend, adopting an attitude not so different from Bruce Wayne’s in The Dark Knight Rises, which materializes over and over again in the tiring finale of the trilogy.  Things went differently than I’d anticipated this time.

Legacy‘s Boring Hero is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the nine super-soldiers in the same program as Bourne – Blackbriar, Treadstone, Outcome, one of those.  There’s a lot of nonsensical jargon between the CIA characters, present only to make the film seem heady and important, but since this is a summer blockbuster, it can’t be too overbearing and the audience’s understanding of every detail doesn’t much matter (including memories of the original trilogy, since Damon’s character is only mentioned twice and wasn’t acquainted with Cross).  The film begins with Cross climbing over a snow-scalped mountain and attempting to survive travel through a winter-bitten forest while a pack of wolves follows him; his reasons for being in the wild are never completely explained, but he soon meets a character credited as Number Three, played by Oscar Isaac, probably pound-for-pound the film’s best actor despite being even more underused than he was in Refn’s Drive from last year.  Number Three is an operative also in the program, and Cross, who has lost his supply of the medicine on which his kind depend for physical ability and mental clarity, seeks help.  Unbeknownst to either of them, however, the CIA has decided to shut down its black ops programs after the Jason Bourne debacle, and begins eliminating its field agents one by one by way of a dubious operation led by Eric Byer (Edward Norton).  This is Aaron Cross’s cue to continue Bourne’s tradition of running away from stuff for two hours.

But wait.  The film stars an effective deuteragonist named Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor who researches and administers the program’s meds without any knowledge of what her subjects (people like Bourne and Cross) actually do.  Unfortunately, part of the CIA’s initiative is to eliminate doctors like Shearing along with the agents they medicate, and one of her coworkers, Dr. Foite (Zeljko Ivanek, to whom I frequently refer as “The Canadian” after his In Bruges character), goes berserk (likely under the CIA’s orders) and executes everyone in the lab in an effectively harrowing display of violence.  After a great scene in which a CIA “psychiatrist” comes to Shearing’s house to finish the job, Shearing meets up with Cross and they travel to the manufacturer of the program’s meds (arbitrarily located in the Philippines), where Shearing will be able to relieve Cross of his drug dependency for good.

To the film’s detriment is the juxtaposition between fake-brainy dialogue and pure spoken exposition.  When a character we’ve never seen before panics about the situation, another answers, “You’re the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.  Act like it!”  These scenes are wedged between the important ones, which feature the thinly-developed relationship between Cross and Shearing, saved by Weisz’s superb dramatic acting and Renner’s occasional attempts to appear as though he gives a damn.  Everything in between is overwritten and the numerous CIA characters wear out their welcome and usefulness very early on, and putting the effort into keeping track of who they are results in very little payoff (personally, I couldn’t shake how much one of them looked like Rush Limbaugh).  There are confusing jump-cuts during fight scenes (such that which arms and legs belong to whom becomes a bit of a mystery) and the shaky-cam technique is consistent with the most dizzying cinematography from the originals.

But wait!  The movie uses supporting characters (aside from Isaac) well, and the colorful queue of assassins who comes after Cross and Shearing brings back pleasant memories of The Bourne Identity, wherein a pre-stardom Clive Owen played a ruthless killer called The Professor, who has become a fan favorite of the series.  The denouement includes a tender (but non-romantic) scene between Cross and Shearing in which Cross becomes a protagonist we can actually root for, and the extended chase climax with Cross’s final foil, an operative from a rival program called LARX (Louis Ozawa Changchien) is thoroughly exciting and has an ending perfect enough that I forgave the more preposterous motorcycle antics.

The Bourne Legacy serves the same purpose as the fourth Pirates of the Carribbean film did: a final breath/second wind for a franchise bloated by Hollywood execs and studio overwriting.  This is a rare case, though, in which the breath is actually satisfying.  Renner’s character is less boring and loud and confused than Damon’s, and a tough, intelligent woman participates in the action (not to mention saves Cross’s life multiple times).  Ed Norton’s one-note government villain wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t for his own versatility as an actor: look at his performance as the lovely, sympathetic scout leader in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, also from this summer’s lineup.

The film has a definite ending.  Our heroes are safe, Cross seems to stop thinking long enough to relax, and the credits roll over a refreshing shot of a sparkling harbor.  The final scene offers a sequel possibility, but it doesn’t much feel like it wants or needs one.  As the true spiritual successor of the first Bourne film, Legacy truly feels like a bookend; any more and you’re just spilling ink on the back cover.

The Bourne Legacy (2012); written and directed by Tony Gilroy; inspired by Robert Ludlum’s novels; starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Wiesz, and Edward Norton.

The Adjustment Bureau

The hats aren’t just for show

There’s a scene in The Adjustment Bureau in which Anthony Mackie tells Matt Damon, “You know the Chairman by other names.”  I wondered, for one meteoric instant, whether this wasn’t the next Narnia film.

George Nolfi’s new flick features Matt Damon as David Norris (of no relation to Chuck, I assume, considering his political stances), a United States congressman in the running for Senator.  After losing the race due to some dirt dug up by the New York Post, he meets a barefoot wedding crasher named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men’s restroom of a hotel.  They have a traditional Meet Cute and a premature kiss, to which Matt Damon responds in the same way I did: “Holy shit.”  Since we know this movie will eventually evolve into sci-fi thriller, it’s okay that our suspension of disbelief is tested here – perhaps even more so by the fact that we’re led to believe the New York Post has any bearing on popular thought.  They’re practically on the same level as Weekly World News these days, aren’t they?

Norris has a respectable goal: get young people to care about politics.  The opening features some interesting work with montage and visuals, including repeat appearances from Jon Stewart (as himself), who interviews Damon (as Norris) on his own show.  This is a great touch, and a good attempt at keeping things current.  In this way, we’re told at the outset that this story takes place now (at least, in 2011, it appears that way).

Soon, after another chance meeting with Elise, Norris is accosted by suited, one-note agent types, all wearing silly fedoras.  They introduce themselves as case workers for someone called the Chairman, who has written a plan for everyone’s lives.  Norris has begun to diverge from his plan, as he was never supposed to meet Elise again, and under pain of being lobotomized, he must agree never to see her again nor tell anyone about his meeting with these men.  Richardson (John Slattery) and Harry (Anthony Mackie) are assigned to keep an eye on Norris and make sure he follows these orders.

Norris, however, is already too far gone after only two meetings with Elise.  Richardson, though, is able to keep Norris away from Elise for three years, during which Norris’ political career and Elise’s dancing career have both rocketed.  They meet again by chance, and Norris somehow BS’s his way out of why he didn’t contact her for three years.  (“I was mugged” – not exactly a lie).  The Adjustment team confronts Norris again, and we soon realize Richardson and Harry are relatively low on the Adjustment food chain.  Having used up their Adjustment limits (which seems like a plot cop-out, but presumably instated to avoid severely messing up so many “plans” that there would be too much of a mess to clean up), Richardson is taken off the case and replaced by Thompson (Terence Stamp, of course), a grizzled Adjustment member whose methods are legendarily ruthless.  Harry, however, meets with Norris privately, seemingly desiring to help.

The film, as with most recent thrillers, raises more questions than it answers.  The Chairman (clearly a “God” allegory) has a plan for everyone on Earth, yet his agents operate like low-end office workers and express human emotions.  They work in small teams and have limited powers.  Norris asks, “Are you angels?”  Harry replies, “We’ve been called that.”  He also reveals that their powers revolve, in large part, around the hats (halos?) they wear.  Yeah?  God is unable to “make” more agents, unable to make them more effective, and unable to give them powers beyond funny hats and digital printouts of “plans” that resemble a complex GPS?  Kitsch aside, the story progresses in engaging ways, especially when Thompson reveals that Norris will become President and Elise a famous choreographer if the two stay away from each other.  The film focuses on their relationship, not the backfill, which is a good writing choice, but at the same time, their relationship is not deeply developed (they actually don’t spend that much time getting to know one another).

In the surprisingly exciting climax, Norris is given an Adjustment hat and granted the transportation abilities of the Chairman’s agents in order to stop Elise from marrying a generic sleazeball.  After finding her in the bathroom of the courthouse in which she is to be married, Norris blurts out the existence of the Adjustment team, and is once again hunted by Thompson, who is now accompanied by the lobotomy people.  Elise agrees to come with him on one last challenge: enter the Adjustment Bureau itself and meet the Chairman face to face in hopes of having the “plan” rewritten.

What I like about the film is that it sticks close to its characters, despite the slight lack of relationship development (I guess we’re just supposed to accept love at first sight and leave it at that).  Even when it makes the transition from political drama/romance to sci-fi thriller, we’re not beaten over the head with superpowers, cheesy technology (other than the hats) and CG battles.  In fact, violence is almost completely absent in the film.  The tip of the climax is not a fight, but a conversation.  We’re allowed to root for the Adjustment team as much as we’re nudged to root for Norris and Elise.  A few observations, however: here we have yet another film in which the woman exists merely as the object of the man’s desire – yes, her “dreams” of being a dancer are mentioned, but she’s never depicted doing anything that doesn’t involve him.  Even the Adjustment team (all male) get their own scenes and inner conflicts (and they’re not even human, for pete’s sake).  Additionally, what are we supposed to think about Elise as a person?  She’s separated from her fiancee’ and started seeing Norris.  Fine.  When he abandons her, she’s back with the other guy (generic sleazeball) after less than a year, and once again engaged to him.  Norris shows up again, and she willingly returns to him, abandoning the other guy at the altar, and doesn’t mention him again.  You have three choices: she’s either fickle and heartless,  hopelessly dependent, or all of the above.  Considering what a cool customer and independent personality she seems to be when we first meet her, this is a bit baffling.

Another question: why does Harry want to help?  Why is he so “human” compared to the other team members?  It’s (sort of) explained in that he witnessed the collapse of Norris’ father and he believes that the Chairman’s ultimate plan is for humans to become responsible enough to have free will, but I’m a bit put off by the fact that he’s the only black member of the Adjustment team, and is portrayed as somewhat lazy and incredibly rebellious.  He’s ultimately the “nice guy,” yes, but why would the Chairman allow a team member the ability to subvert his own plans so thoroughly?  These aren’t normal guys he hired for temp jobs on CapitalAreaHelpWanted; they’re angels, man!  We also don’t get answers to what happens later: the future ends up blank when love overcomes the plan, but whether Norris and Elise’s respective careers fall to pieces due to their relationship, we never find out.

Ultimately, it’s a feel-good movie, and despite its sci-fi elements, it’s a good date flick.  It’s barely worth mentioning that it’s based on a Phillip K. Dick story, because there are almost no similarities (par for the course with something in the public domain).  I’ve heard it described as a “love story,” but I’m more inclined to call it a “sci-fi story about love.”  Note the differences.  The performances are strong, Terence Stamp retains his usual typecasting, and the film manages to go from Real to Fantastic without abandoning its original story or overwhelming us with sci-fi nonsense.  If nothing else, it will make you look twice at people in funny hats.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011); written and directed by George Nolfi (based upon Phillip K. Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team); starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery and Terence stamp.

True Grit (2010)

Fill your hand!

When writing an allegedly impartial piece, one should refrain from making such claims as “The Brothers Coen are the most prolific filmmakers working today.”  Omitting any cliche’ I could dig up to justify this sort of claim, I’ll avoid stating it altogether and simply take a look at the recent record.  Joel and Ethan Coen have released a film every year since winning Best Picture for 2007’s No Country For Old Men, and even prior to the McCarthy adaptation, they were turning out films of great variety and substance near-annually.  From dark, violent, atmospheric breath-stealers (Fargo; Blood Simple; Miller’s Crossing) to screwball comedies (Burn After Reading; The Hudsucker Proxy) to thoughtful, dialogue-laden adventures with colorful characters (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to cult favorites with no defining label (The Big Lebowski), the Coens have tried their four respective hands in plenty of territory.

With True Grit, the brothers continue to surprise.  This film is their first true genre exercise: an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 Western novel.  While the film is a second adaptation of the book and not a remake of the 1969 film with John Wayne, it does share plenty of similarities, right down to some scenes being carbon copies dialogue-wise.  What sets this film apart, among other things, is the cinematography.   Not only do we have a vintage Coen Brothers film that manages to be dark, serious and (I guess I have to use the word) gritty, but also a story that remembers its origins: where James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma and Ed Harris’ Appaloosa began to pave the way and both almost succeeded, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit has restored the true spirit of the Western to modern American cinema.

For those who have been asleep since the late sixties, the story follows Mattie Ross (formerly played by the spunky Kim Darby, now played by Hailee Steinfeld, a young newcomer) a fourteen year-old girl looking for revenge against a drifter who killed her father.  She seeks the help of a rough, homely old U.S. Marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the role John Wayne played in the original), who is seldom caught sober and who apparently doesn’t take many prisoners.  Joining them out of personal interest is a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (a moustached Matt Damon in the role formerly occupied by Glenn Campbell).  The adventure centers largely around these characters, and the antagonists are only talked about, never seen, until the final fourth of the movie.  However short a time they are given on screen, they are played to full effectiveness by Josh Brolin (as Tom Chaney, the object of the quest) and Barry Pepper ( as Lucky Ned, the leader of a dangerous gang with whom Chaney has fallen in).

The cast works together as a dysfunctional machine.  This film is Steinfeld’s first shot at a leading role, yet we never get the sense that she is being buffered by the grizzled Bridges and the experienced Damon – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.  As Mattie is the main protagonist, she narrates the story, controls the main action, and commands every scene in which she appears.  She is a strong presence and an incredible gift to young actresses (it’s okay to have an unknown thirteen year-old girl as the lead character in a movie that has Bridges, Damon and Brolin!).  Bridges is wonderful as Cogburn, making the role his own and never looking back at John Wayne, yet paying as great a homage to the rugged Duke as anyone ever has.  The Coens wisely keep the iconic buildup to the four-on-one gunfight, and when Cogburn shouts his famous lines at Lucky Ned, it’s difficult to not only suppress a cheer, but to avoid seeing John Wayne on that horse for just a moment.  In addition to being a weathered old anti-hero, however, Bridges’ Cogburn has his lovable moments, particularly when traveling alone with Mattie and relating the events of his life.  On the other end, Damon is great as La Boeuf, the character whose alignment is constantly in question (the “problem character,” if you will), and you’ll never once think “that’s Matt Damon” when watching him.  Brolin plays a pure villain with whom even the toughest gang in the West wants nothing to do, and Pepper plays Ned as a woolly-chapped gang boss who, while completely sure of himself, knows he’s an outlaw and a ruffian, and avoids being a blowhard Western baddie.  Domhnall Gleeson also appears as the ill-fated Moon, in a role once played by a young, pony-tailed Dennis Hopper.  The “Your partner’s killed ya” exchange is preserved and wonderful.

The Coens make good decisions with the supporting cast as well.  The characters we liked from the novel and the old movie return and are given a bit more to do, such as Harold Parmalee (Bruce Green), the “simple-minded” member of Ned’s gang who communicates only by making farm-animal noises.  They eliminate the character of Mexican Bob altogether, and they severely reduce the appearance of Mr. Lee (Peter Leung), the Chinese grocer with whom Cogburn lives.

I am concerned about a certain scene, however.  During the hanging at Fort Smith, the prisoners are given last words before taking the plunge.  But as the Native American prisoner begins to speak, a bag is shoved over his head immediately.  This drew laughter from the audience.  It isn’t supposed to.  This is a person being treated as a second-class citizen on his own land.  The land belonging to the “injuns” is called “unsettled territory.”  It isn’t a joke.  It’s a small gripe, but I haven’t decided whether it’s a gripe against the filmmakers or the rabble.

The film has beautiful locations and ambient music by Carter Burwell that knows when to take center stage and when to back up.  There are a few editing errors here and there, but having worked on a film myself recently, I know they happen and I know why they happen, especially when deadlines come into play.

The Coens continue to push their own limits with film.  Did True Grit need to be remade?  No.  The original is an adventure that has held up to this day.  However, the Coens’ version stands apart as its own film, and has the most likable trio of protagonists in recent memory.  By the end of the film, I wished I could have spent more time with the young Mattie and old Cogburn before the epilogue.  But hey, maybe in fifty years, someone will remake Rio Bravo…again.

True Grit (2010); written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen; starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.