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Sunday, January 2, 2011

True Grit and The Fighter


In this, we find two films, in common yet remarkably different - two films: one, a project so epic in vision that it becomes distressingly standard, and another so simple in execution that it can't help but remain three cuts above the rest. The former, another entry from David O'Russell. The latter, the latest from our revered Coen Brothers. The Fighter, and True Grit.

The Fighter - 

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale

Within the pantheon of boxing films we see every few years, the formula that first knocked us on our asses in 1974 with Sylvester Stallone's Rocky has become dry and tedious. The inspirational underdog shows "true grit" and is hence lifted in his spirits and brought to great fruition. Laymen = the ne'er-do-well does well. It's surprising here, though, the way it happens. In the first ten or fifteen minutes, very little focus is put on our underdog, Micky Ward of Mass., and we're instead treated to what turns out to be the film's one man show - Christian Bale, as Dickey Ward, the once great boxer turned crack addict and criminal. It is in Bale's performance that the film's salvation lies. Too much is on David O'Russell's plate, and he can't control it all. Thankfully, Bale rises above the film to give, in no uncertain terms, the performance he seems born to have given. His work is the definition of Oscar. 

The Fighter's screenplay seems to be almost type-by-numbers. It's obvious that a lot of heart and soul, maybe some blood and sweat, and certainly tears, went into the making of the film. The audience can tell just how deeply convicted the film is, especially in its boxing scenes, or its scenes with the once great Dickey (the now legend Bale). But, the screenplay is mostly to blame for the film's unsteady pacing and its unnerving sense of comedy. O'Russell, famous for his dryly realized Three Kings, and the hilariously aloof I Heart Huckabee's, attempts his first out-and-out drama, but can't seem to stray from his personally ironic sense of humor. And it strangles most of his dramatic scenes. Sure, one could write this off as "an auteur showing the comedy in his heavily dramatic and chaotic world", but I'm chalking it up to a lack of tonal control - the mark of every great director. 

Mark Wahlberg, beefier than ever, does his Boston best, and not since The Departed has he been so well received. He's a remarkably capable actor, as shown in Boogie Nights and I Heart Huckabee's, and his Oscar nominated role in The Departed, and here is absolutely no different. He's soft, melancholic, and as quiet as a mouse, until backed into a corner. His Micky Ward seems to lack the confidence needed to be the great fighter everyone around wants him to be, but that doesn't stop Ward from doing what he knows best - fighting, in more than one sense of the word. And Wahlberg internalizes that struggle very well. Around him, though, are two talented actors who are a bit crushed under what O'Russell left for them to do - Amy Adams, adorable as ever, gives that Princess sensibility to our slumming bartender with a heart of gold. But, when called upon to step out of her comfort zone and imbue the given sexuality of her character, every note flat. She has it in her, as an actress with strong dramatic chops, but maybe (like Ward) lacks the confidence to bring it fully to the table. Hell of an effort, though. And, our stage mother, Melissa Leo, jabbers along with her thick Boston accent, leaving nothing but fumes in her past. Of the "frightening mothers" portrayed this year (Barbara Hershey in Black Swan, and Jackie Weaver in Animal Kingdom), she's at the bottom of the totem. Really good performance, but, and again I blame O'Russell, flat when needing to be something stronger and intimidating. 

Overall, it's a solid project, with one masterful performance at its center - that of Christian Bale. If he doesn't receive the Oscar, perhaps we should reevaluate why we hold the ceremony in the first place. 

So, that brings us to 

True Grit - 

Jeff Bridges, and the newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (above) stomp around in the wild west for Joel and Ethan Coen, not remaking the John Wayne classic for which he deservedly won Best Actor at the Oscars, but rather retelling the story from Charles Portis' grande novel from 1968. Darkly comedic, which is more than familiar territory for the Coen's, and rich in dramatic landscape, another area in which the Coen's succeed, the project seems tailor made for them. Upon announcement of the "remake", a lot of people figured the role of Marshall "Rooster" Cogburn would go to Tommy Lee Jones, but the Coen's made their usual right choice in picking their Dude Jeff Bridges. He's at once calm yet gruff, a man of undeniable guilt and guile, and he bubbles underneath his skin with the kind of violence and self-loathing that permanently sets a man apart from everyone he meets. It's undeniably astounding work from a master of his craft. 

We have, in the role of little Maddie Ross (avenging her father's death, why she hires Mr. Cogburn to escort her over Indian territory), Hailee Steinfeld and the birth of a new star. And at only around 14 years old, she shows the confidence of an actress, veteran and twice her age, tackling the Coen's verbose screenplay and treating it like it's merely second nature, or if the words are somehow only an echo of what's really going on inside her head. She's one of those actresses you can look at and see every wheel turning, yet they never manage to surprise at every turn. Think of James Spader and his work in Two Days in the Valley - sharp, cunning, and crafty. Only, this is a 14 year old girl. In a Coen's western. We're being treated here. 

The supporting cast surrounding Bridges and Steinfeld are at the tops of their respective games as well - Matt Damon, Texas Ranger shows us his subtly... sexual? side and never once loses his focus on the character - the flesh-over-faith style of his performance only enhances the spiritual tones of the film, and gives our two leads more to play off of. He's a generous actor. Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin round out our semi-big name cast and do solid, if nothing else, work.

And that, of course, brings us to the Coen's themselves. Since Blood Simple back in 1984, they've been light years ahead of everyone else in terms of approach and execution, to even the smallest of details. True Grit proves no different. Carter Burwell's beautiful and haunting score, riffing from 19th century hymnal pieces, provides the perfect cherry for our old-school sundae, and Roger Deakins captures the western, and tragic, landscape like only he can. 

It's a beautiful, beautiful film, that seeks only to tell a story, and not bombard us with life lessons or morality (moreso than is needed for the story). It's suggested, from the beginning, that Maddie Ross never did much with her life accept seek revenge for her father. And maybe that was enough for her. We, as the audience, certainly don't need to know anymore.