The remake of True Grit in time for Christmas is not warm and fuzzy - what the hell is on Americans' minds?
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 23, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
Christmas Movies 2010 - "True Grit" Ain't Warm and Fuzzy
Remarkably, only one major film was released this Christmas week to capture those restless souls honkering down for the holiday, but looking for some side diversion.
The movie - True Grit - is a remake by Joel and Ethan Coen of the 1969 version that garnered John Wayne an Oscar playing Rooster Cogburn. True Grit, particularly at the hands of the Coen brothers, is not a traditional Christmas film. It involves a 14-year-old girl named Mattie searching for her father's killer with the aid of Cogburn (played this time out by Jeff Bridges), a man who stays drunk days at a time when the opportunity presents itself, and who is lying when he says he has only killed a dozen men (it is hard to add up the body count in this film - bring an abacus).
But that's not what makes this film less than warm and fuzzy. Mattie, after all, could have developed a loving relationship with Cogburn - who saves her life and helps her fulfill her mission (as does another sidekick, LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon). But after this adventure, she never sees the two again, and now herself sporting a handicap and unmarried, at nearly 40 she is shown still ranking out some unsuspecting cowboy for his rudeness.
Rooster, Mattie, and LaBoeuf (always referred to as LaBeef) are travellers in a hard world. The two men watch as Mattie (remember, she's barely teen-aged) struggles across a river in which she could easily have been drowned. Eventually, the two men come to accept and respect her (LaBoeuf - "You've earned your spurs") but that doesn't mean they hug or put their arms around her, or even muss her hair. They're not the affectionate type.
Nobody in the film is. The world in which the three travel is like a journey through Dante's inferno, populated by men who live like vermin and kill - and die - without forethought. When Mattie boards with one family before embarking on her quest, its matronly head is as unappealing and manipulative as the men who live in cabins and by campfires in the woods whom they encounter - and kill - on the road.
Cogburn - like the villains they meet - kills without remorse - without a second thought, really. As they travel he recaps his failed marriages and nonexistent relationship with his son, as though this was the way his life - all lives - were meant to be. LaBoeuf has no visible emotional ties. And Mattie herself ends up what was then termed a "spinster."
It may be ironic that - amidst tons of killing - there is nothing approaching a sex scene in this off-beat American production. There are no female leads other than this 14-year-old, although a passing reference is made to the possibility of sex with her. But whether such things happened on the primitive American Western frontier or not, that would be too gritty for any American audience.
What does it say about America that (along with films about predatory mothers), we turn for holiday cheer to professional killers - très amusant as they may be? Perhaps we are have a less joyful holiday spirit than when Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story (as offbeat as that movie was) was made in 1983, Natalie Wood appeared in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947, and Jimmy Stewart chewed the scenery as George Bailey in Frank Capra's 1946 dark comedy-romance , It's a Wonderful Life.
And if you're in the mood for a Christmas story that is grueling in an entirely different way, you might rent Arnaud Desplechin 's A Christmas Tale (French: Un Conte de Noël) - a fabulous 2008 vehicle for Catherine Deneuve (no, that's not pronounced DeNeef). Warning: there is some actual sex in the film, real - but tolerated - alcoholism, and deep and abiding - if deeply conflicted - emotional connections. They are French, after all.
Finally, whatever its failures in the romance department, on sheer filmmaking quality and creativity - along with its, well, unromantic grittiness - True Grit is better than any film nominated for the Golden Globe Awards, however sentimental they may be (The King's Speech and Burlesque, really). And, while I'm at it, as classic of an icon as John Wayne is, including his appearing in some of the great films of the 20th Century (particularly John Ford's The Searchers), Jeff Bridges not only clearly surpasses Wayne portrayal of the same character in this one (due to the Coen bros' concept), but the equally flawed, but far less iconic, role for which he won his Academy Award last year, Crazy Heart.