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A note on Rex Reed and True Grit

I wasn’t going to be writing anything about True Grit.  I figured it goes without saying that the Coen Brothers know how to make a good film, and this is no exception.  But then I read a review from a film critic I have long thought to be a joke in the journalistic community; Rex Reed.  Do you know this man, this man who somehow earned mountains of cash writing “bitch” columns about society and film? To read Rex is to be misguided by Rex.  This is a film reviewer that calls Christopher Nolan “a hack” that has yet to make a comprehensible film.  He essentially credits the Coen Brothers as making only two good films; Fargo and No Country for Old Men.  Rex Reed is, at best, an archaic relic from a time when people found it fashionable to sip on brandy or martinis at soirees while listening to the resident bitchy gay social critic’s inane thoughts on people’s affairs, art and film. I thought that trend died with Capote and Warhol (although those two men actually had value).

While Rex occasionally gets something right, like John Wayne’s Oscar being undeserved or calling The Social Network a “film transcends its trendy, obvious limitations with enough vitality and vitriol to make it as informative and breathless as it is entertaining, most of the time Rex is so off-base that we wonder where and when he gained his credibility. Perhaps in grand ol’ yesteryear this man could shed some insight on the movie scene but today he can’t enjoy or even comprehend any film more intelligent or complex than Seabiscuit. Let us consider the Coen Brothers’ revisit to the classic western novel, True Grit.

Let’s start off by mentioning how brilliant this film looks.  Roger Deakins surpasses any cinematographer working back Rex’s heyday, including Storaro, Hall and Unsworth. Deakins has a command of composition and light that should be the envy of every aspiring cinematographer and the fact this man hasn’t won the Oscar simply proves again the award is essentially meaningless. But Rex doesn’t pay any respect to technical merit in almost anything I’ve read from his pen, so we must move past the technical and focus on the story-telling.

We open on a shot that draws you in; it’s a warm soft-focused image that begins as an almost pin-point on the screen so you lean forward slightly to make it out.  As the image grows and pulls focus, with the somber narration of an older Mattie Ross accompanying, we see a lifeless body outside an old saloon getting covered in lightly falling snow; his horses trots off the far right of the screen and it is clear this is going to be a darker version of the novel than the 1969 film. When Mattie Ross first enters (played by the bright young actress Hailee Steinfeld that graduated from Chapman student films to the major leagues in a matter of months) she is confronted with death all around her.  She identifies her father’s body then witnesses the public hanging of three criminals.  It is clear, the punishment for sin is death and Mattie demands the murderer Tom Chaney be punished.  Mattie manages to summon up her strength to bully around old western men with grit and determination.  Does she really have a lawyer like she constantly claims? Maybe not, but she’s convincing enough that she gets her way.

Rex Reed calls Stienfeld’s performance “passable,” which is an understatement.  Steinfeld brought the same refined confidence and articulate verbal mastery as Kim Darby did decades ago. But of course self-doubt and nerves surface during the journey and we witness the character’s final steps into adulthood. Darby and Steinfeld are so evenly matched in this role it would be difficult to really set one over the other. Bravo to Steinfeld. I look forward to watching her continue on what is certainly going to be a career that far outshines Rex’s sorry attempt at an acting career.

Which brings us next to Rex’s lambasting of Jeff Bridges. So you won’t have to go searching for his exact words, let me give the quote. Rex writes,

“…he gives the worst performance of 2010, grunting and growling with a throat full of gravel that renders any rational assessment of the screenplay pointless…Incoherent mumbling has become his trademark, substituting bloated self-indulgence for what used to be acting. Mr. Bridges does everything to out-wobble, out-drawl, out-screech and outdo John Wayne, hoping his meandering tirade will make everyone forget the original and forgo comparisons.”

I will say that I think drawing a comparison between Wayne’s performances and Bridges’ is senseless.  Bridges actually manages to act, where as Wayne simply plays John Wayne with an eye-patch.  There is comedy in this story, Rooster Cogburn has a sardonic sense of humor that got completely lost in Wayne’s stilted and flat turn as the marshal. Comedy is difficult, too difficult for the Duke to pull off.  But with comedy in the Bridges blood and a good handle on the craft of acting, Jeff manages to give new layers to Cogburn that haven’t been seen before.  There is not only an appealing sense of humor, but a clear emotional progression and arc that culminates with a tense ride to save Mattie’s life.  The words Rex couldn’t make out between grunts and groans is likely due to his own rapidly aging ears and not Bridges’ performance.

I know that above I’ve given a lot of praise to this adaptation of the novel, and the praise is well deserved.  But obviously this film is not flawless. Matt Damon was miscast. A fine actor in the right roles, here he was caught between the tough guy that he has branded himself as and the arrogant, somewhat “dandy” of a Texas ranger he is supposed to be playing here. In and out of his accent his scenes were airy without any emotion behind his dialogue and in the end he is eclipsed by the performances of Stienfeld, Bridges and Brolin (as brief as his appearance was). The ending felt tacked on, even though it is very true to the ending in the novel. I hated the horrible attempt at an uplifting ending in the original, but still this “downer” ending felt hurried and unsatisfying.  And finally, there is a scene where Cogburn and LeBoeuf shoot cornbread like skeet in a pissing contest which felt like a cheap attempt at levity.  The scene should’ve been cut, adding nothing to the plot and being a low point for each performance.

This was a great western. A wonderfully crafted story of wild west justice and vengeance, the story of an old curmudgeon learning to care for another and a young girl coming of age.  Although it’s not one of my top five Coen Brother films, it still brings me to my final point against Rex.  Master story-tellers deserve their recognition.  Rex said it himself in his interview with Cavett that he believes people should receive adequate recognition for their accomplishments. The Coen Brothers have proven themselves across all genres and time-periods, taking us on an odyssey in the depression era south to the Jewish communities in the suburbs of Minnesota, the seedy underworld of Texas and into the surreal worlds of parenting in Arizona and writing “boxing pictures” in 1940’s Hollywood.  There are only two movies they’ve made that I would say you shouldn’t bother seeing, which leaves them with a solid winning record.

So, the Coen Brothers will go on to make more cinematic history while Rex will simply start to fade into obscurity longing for the days when his opinions may have been relevant. And to The New York Observer, as long as there is Andrew Sarris who can contribute (despite taking him off your permanent staff) what need is there for Rex Reed?

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