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The Conversations: True Grit

Jeff Bridges does meet the challenge, but he does so by kind of skirting around it.

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The Conversations: True Grit

Ed Howard: The idea of the modern western as an art of deconstruction has become so engrained in today’s film culture that it’s disconcerting when a new western comes along that doesn’t take a revisionist stance on the once-beloved Hollywood genre. Westerns don’t get made very much these days, but when they are we expect them to be in the lineage of Peckinpah or Leone rather than the old Hollywood craftsmen who made the genre so ubiquitous in the 1940s and ‘50s. You see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Although most film fans would expect a Coen brothers western to be a sardonic, revisionist take on the genre, True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s first proper stab at a genre that has often haunted their work in spirit, is a good old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness western in the classical tradition.

This actually shouldn’t be surprising. There are markers of western style in many other Coen films, notably O Brother Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men: the love of landscapes, the gruffly poetic language, the stark morality, even the fascination with hats that runs through Miller’s Crossing, for in what other genre besides the western do hats mean so much? True Grit might be the Coens’ first actual western, but it’s such a natural fit for them because they’ve always kind of seemed like western filmmakers in a deeper sense. This is why the Old West milieu, sparsely populated as it is with oddballs and degenerates and criminals, feels like an extension of the Mexican border towns of No Country for Old Men, or the wasted Northwestern wilds of Fargo, or even the backwards suburban absurdity of Raising Arizona.

True Grit is an adaptation of a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, which was already made into a film in 1969 by director Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne in the role that won him his only Oscar. Though the Coens’ film differs from Hathaway’s in several important ways and numerous smaller ones—apparently because the Coens follow the novel, which I haven’t read, more faithfully than Hathaway did—the two films also share a good amount of common ground. What’s ultimately most striking about the Coens’ film is how traditional it is, how unshowy and subtle. It balances humor and darkness and action, and it does so within a wholly classical context. First and foremost, it’s just a great story and a great western, and its humble artifice is very refreshing.

True Grit

Jason Bellamy: It is indeed. Over and over, I find myself thinking of the Coens’ True Grit as a “wonderful little film”—that’s the label that keeps popping into my head—and I say “little” with fondness. As you say, the Coens aren’t out to reinvent the western. Nor are they out to emboss the western in gold, to treat every minor moment with epic splendor, akin to Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (a movie I like very much, by the way). Instead they take this rather modest western at face value, celebrating its inherent high points without feeling the need to make a boldface statement about the entire genre or about their abilities within it. I suspect one of the reasons this film is so humble is because the Coens have worked so consistently of late, churning out about a movie a year. If the heyday of the western—at least in terms of its popularity and ubiquity—can be traced back to a time when someone like John Ford would make two movies a year, I think there’s a natural correlation between the western and unfussiness, because directors such as Ford set our expectations for what a western should look like and because cinematic opulence has the potential to create tonal inconsistency within a genre typically dominated by crusty, relatively inelegant characters in harsh environments.

Speaking of which, let’s not beat around the tumbleweed any longer before discussing True Grit’s crusty and relatively inelegant main character, Rooster Cogburn. Like you, I haven’t read Portis’ novel, but I feel safe in assuming that the majority of the book’s fans have spent the past 40 years imagining Rooster in the form of his original onscreen depiction by John Wayne. The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially in this one. Rooster is one of Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster Cogburn’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. Rooster Cogburn is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie to feel convincing and because John Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand.

When John Lee Hancock remade 1960’s The Alamo, I don’t think anyone worried about whether Billy Bob Thornton could escape the shadow of John Wayne when he donned the coonskin cap of Davy Crockett, because that role wasn’t inherently Wayne’s. But donning the eye patch of Rooster Cogburn is another story, and in approaching the Coens’ True Grit, it was impossible not to wonder what Jeff Bridges’s performance would look like, and whether it could create its own space, because for so many people Rooster Cogburn and John Wayne were (or maybe still are) inseparable. It’s a challenging position, to be sure. So, Ed, I’m curious what you think: Does Bridges meet the challenge?

True Grit

EH: In a word, yes, Bridges does meet the challenge, but he does so by kind of skirting around it. If there’s one thing about this True Grit that feels very different from its predecessor, it’s Rooster, even though the character retains the same uneasy mix of hard frontier moralist, amoral bounty hunter and incorrigible drunkard. Rooster is naturally larger than life, but in some ways Bridges seems to play him as someone smaller, more sunken into himself. Wayne’s performance as Rooster is big and bold, flirting with self-parody, balancing Wayne’s characteristic manly stoicism against touches of silly slapstick and absurdity. Wayne’s Rooster is capable of clumsily drawling out tongue-twisters like, “Mr. Rat, I have a writ here says you’re to stop eating Chin Lee’s cornmeal forthwith. Now it’s a rat writ, writ for a rat, and this is lawful service of the same,” an outrageously overwritten threat directed at an actual rat. It’s awkward, but it’s also hilarious, especially when he turns around and uses the rat as a roundabout justification for his habit of killing criminals outright rather than delivering them to justice in the courts. It’s impossible to imagine Bridges’s Rooster being that goofy, even though his performance is also defined by its ornate but often slurred language.

What Bridges brings to this role, I think, is introspection. It’s a showy performance by most standards, but compared to Wayne he seems positively naturalistic. His snarling is less theatrical, his diction more unpredictable. Bridges doesn’t have Wayne’s long history of playing this kind of character to draw on. Where Wayne was portraying what happens when one of his typical heroes ages and gets cranky, Bridges is simply inhabiting a character. Where Wayne’s Rooster always had the precise, slow drawl that’s unmistakably Wayne’s—even his drunkenness seemed considered and actorly—Bridges’s Rooster has a habit of mumbling and trailing off, slurring his words together into a gravelly soup where meanings are elusive. Bridges brings a bit of the Dude’s messiness to Rooster, and it makes Rooster seem more like a real, crumbling, crusty old coot than the self-conscious caricature that the Duke brought to the screen.

This difference is manifested in countless small touches throughout the film—check out the slack-jawed Lebowski-esque stare that Rooster fixes on Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) when she’s really pattering away—but it’s most apparent in the character’s late-in-the-film collapse and redemption. Wayne’s Rooster was slightly silly from the beginning, and he purposefully overplays such moments as his drunken fall from his horse. There’s a lot of emotion in Wayne’s Rooster, a lot of sadness, but it’s the sadness of seeing a screen icon struggling with aging, the sadness of seeing one of the cinema’s great tough guys dealing with the loss of his potency. This was a recurring theme in Wayne’s late roles, and it’s undeniably poignant. But in a way it prevents one from thinking of Rooster as a character, independent of his meta status as an outgrowth of Wayne. Bridges, by submerging himself in Rooster, allows the character’s physical and moral decay to be affecting not because of what it says about the actor, but for what it says about the character: his moving, rambling “I bow out” speech is devastating, a total repudiation of his dignity, and it’s all the more powerful for the quiet, forceful intensity that Bridges brings to it. It feels like a proud, strong man brought to the point where he’s capable of turning his back on everything he’s ever stood for. Wayne, playing Rooster as a cranky culmination of his own screen history, offers a touching and often funny elegy for his own career, but he doesn’t stare into the abyss the way Bridges’s Rooster does.

True Grit

JB: Before I dig into your analysis, I suppose it’s worth sharing how I came (and came back) to these films. In late childhood and early adolescence, I watched Hathaway’s True Grit three or four times, but I hadn’t seen it since, and so while watching the Coens’ film my recollection of Hathaway’s original was fuzzy at best. I remembered the general plot, the signature scenes in the meadow and snake pit, and the personalities of the main characters, but not much more. As the Coens’ film unfolded, much felt familiar but most of it felt new. Maybe twice I remembered a line of dialogue before it was delivered, but mostly I recognized them only after the fact. I bring this up to make it clear that my mental image of Rooster Cogburn wasn’t much more specific than what anyone who hadn’t seen the film would be likely to come up with if asked to imagine John Wayne in a cowboy hat and black eye patch. I had remembered that Rooster was feisty and that, in the parlance of the film, he liked to “pull a cork,” but that’s about it. So for me Jeff Bridges was working within a fairly blank slate. Yet somehow he failed to live up to my expectations.

And yet here’s what’s strange: After seeing the Coens’ film (twice), I went back to Hathaway’s and found that Wayne didn’t live up to my expectations either. It seems I must have been comparing Bridges, and then Wayne, with Wayne’s legendary aura, rather than to Wayne’s actual performance. In my memory, Rooster was a huge character, much like Wayne was a huge icon, but upon further review Rooster isn’t especially huge in either film. That isn’t to imply that Rooster doesn’t have presence or a personality. Of course he does. He’s an action hero in an eye patch, for crying out loud. But as much as both films establish through verbal testimony that Rooster has an unusually quick trigger finger and limited patience, I find that neither Wayne nor Bridges fashion a character anywhere near as ornery or fierce as Rooster’s reputation. In each case, Rooster’s cantankerousness seems playful, not off-putting, and his use of force seems appropriate, not extraordinary. I concede that might be part of the point: True Grit (especially in the Coens’ version) is about the deceptiveness of appearances and assumptions. Regardless, when I watched the Coens’ film I found that Bridges’s Rooster felt small. I think you’re correct that Wayne’s Rooster relies on the character’s “meta status as an outgrowth of Wayne,” and I agree that Bridges better conceals himself within the character (the beard helps), but I never got a great sense of who Bridges’s Rooster really is.

Subtitles might have helped. Bridges’s mumbling is so difficult to decipher that at some point I concluded that the Coens aren’t all that interested in anything that comes out of Rooster’s mouth. Bridges’s Rooster is easier to understand in some scenes than others, but that creates its own problem: his “accent” often changes. In the beginning of the film, particularly in the court scene, and near the end of the film, Bridges seems to be doing an impression of James Gammon doing an impression of Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl “Sling Blade” Childers: same cadence, same paralyzed lower lip. In other scenes, however, he sounds more like a groggy Wilford Brimley. I rarely get worked up over such inconsistencies, but Bridges’s vocal antics so dominate his performance that it’s a legitimate distraction. It’s as if Bridges was so determined to avoid sounding anything like Wayne that he made Rooster’s voice the focal point of his performance. So for me what personality Bridges’s Rooster does have is the result of the way the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins frame his expressive face in moments of silence, particularly in some of the film’s tremendous closeups, most notably in the scene in which Mattie rides Little Blackie across the river, and the scene in which Rooster sizes up the bear man, and the scene in which Rooster shoots Emmett Quincy (Paul Rae) in the dugout by the river. I can’t say I ever felt I was watching Bridges’s Rooster “stare into the abyss.” But even though I think Bridges’s uneven performance is the film’s weak point, I do enjoy all the moments when the Coens allow us to stare into Rooster’s face.

True Grit

EH: It’s interesting that you say that Rooster isn’t a “huge” character, that he doesn’t live up to expectations. That’s a major point of both films, no? Rooster is larger than life, but he’s decidedly not larger than life in the ways we’d expect. In both films—but even more forcefully in the Coens’ version—the film builds Rooster up only to tear him down, then perhaps build him up again as he belatedly redeems his tough-guy image. Before we ever meet Rooster, we hear how nasty he is, how mean and unforgiving, how tenacious. And then we (and Mattie) meet him, and he turns out to be an unstable, unreliable drunk who’s constantly sleeping off hangovers and can barely talk at times. Rooster is meant to be a disappointment. He was perhaps once a really great man, or at least a really effective killer, but now he’s a drunken mess who lives in a filthy room behind a store, and who occasionally still drags himself out of bed to go kill criminals for money. There’s even an implication—again, developed more thoroughly by the Coens, but present in both films—that it’s because of Rooster’s moral degradation that he’s earned his reputation as a ruthless killer. In the courtroom scene in both films, it quickly becomes apparent that Rooster is lying about what happened on his latest mission, that rather than bravely facing down a gang of armed criminals he ambushed them during their dinner and killed most of them before they could make a move, likely without ever giving them a chance to surrender peacefully. This suggests that Rooster is something of a coward; he wanted to get the kills over with rather than risk a fair fight. The Coens later have Rooster admit that he was once a thief himself, and he’s unrepentant about it, which suggests that his turn to the law is a matter of going where the money is rather than a moral imperative.

That’s one fruitful departure from the Hathaway version, and it informs another. In both films, there’s a fascinating scene in which Rooster and LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell and Matt Damon in the 1969 and 2010 versions, respectively) talk about their experiences during the Civil War, and LaBoeuf insults Rooster’s outfit as “a bunch of thieves,” rather than a proper military unit. In Hathaway’s film, Rooster is able to beat down the accusation, largely through the strength of Wayne’s drawling charisma, which always made it difficult to imagine a Wayne character who didn’t abide by an old-fashioned code of honor and masculinity. The Coens, on the other hand, allow LaBoeuf’s accusation to stick, because Rooster later acknowledges his checkered past, and moreover because Bridges’s incarnation of the character has an air of moral turpitude much deeper than Wayne’s goofy antics.

That’s what I mean when I say that Bridges’s Rooster stares into the abyss of his own degradation. This is especially clear in the scene I already alluded to above, where Rooster gives up on their mission. That’s a pretty astonishing scene when you think about it: how often do you hear the ostensible hero of a picture like this declaring himself a failure and his mission hopeless? Whatever you think of Bridges’s performance in this film—and I for one like his graceless slurring and elevation of language and accent over meaning—he’s pretty amazing in that scene. It’s the nadir for Rooster, the moment when he’s as far as it’s possible to be from his reputation as a man with “grit.” Bridges is, to me anyway, very moving in that scene. Throughout the film, his rambling, difficult-to-understand discourse makes him a character set apart from others, so thoroughly collapsed into himself that he can barely communicate. “I bow out” is loud and clear, though, even as Rooster sinks deeper than ever into self-pity and isolation.

True Grit

JB: As disappointing as I find Bridges’s performance, I think we see his character and the film’s treatment of him mostly the same, though we might disagree a bit on the Coens’ intent. In my view, more than anything the Coens allow Rooster to be small so as to further enhance Mattie by comparison. Whereas Hathaway’s film is very much shared between Rooster and Mattie, right down to their final moment together, the Coens’ film is Mattie’s through and through. Despite his extensive screen time, Bridges’s Rooster is not much more than a supporting character, and I think that’s what surprised me: that he’s so easy to disregard, and that I didn’t feel the Coens demanded that I reconcile who Rooster is and what he stands for.

And that’s where the mumbling isn’t just a matter of taste. You said you’re fine with the “elevation of language and accent over meaning,” but there’s some pretty significant meaning that risks being overlooked in the Coens’ film. Take for example that courthouse scene: In Hathaway’s version, Rooster is caught being loose with the facts, but that only makes him seem charming. When Wayne’s Rooster suggests that hogs might have moved a body into the fire, it’s almost as if he’s mocking his prosecutor, as if he’s indeed the last person who should know how the corpses were positioned. But in the Coens’ film, Bridges’s Rooster is clearly on the defensive, and offers the hogs as an excuse because he can come up with nothing else. One gets the sense that Bridges’s Rooster really doesn’t remember how the shootout went down but that he knows it’s entirely plausible, in fact likely, that he shot someone in the back. At least, that’s the impression one gets if they can comprehend the dialogue. I recognize that it’s a little silly to complain about the indecipherability of the dialogue while all but quoting it, but I feel that by reducing the clarity of Rooster’s words the film also reduces Rooster—and not just metaphorically.

Of course, I’ve already mentioned the benefit of this approach: the less we focus on Rooster, the more we focus on Mattie. And if two months ago you’d told me that would be a recipe for success, I’d never have believed it. In Hathaway’s film, Mattie, as played by Kim Darby, isn’t much more than a nagging tagalong who insists on accompanying Rooster almost out of an accountant’s need for completeness. She’s the catapult that launches the plot and gives it momentum, but not much more. In the Coens’ film, however, Mattie, as played by Hailee Steinfeld, is the film’s heart and soul. She’s along for the ride because, well, it’s her ride. If it were up to her, she’d go after Chaney alone. In these films, both Matties are determined to see Tom Chaney hanged, but only one of them seems truly focused on vengeance: Steinfeld’s. Am I right?

True Grit

EH: I’m not going to say no, because there’s no question that Steinfeld delivers a far better and richer performance than Darby did. It’s a remarkable performance, dominating and driving the film, both because Steinfeld is so amazing in the role and because there’s no Wayne-sized presence to distract from her centrality. She is a forceful, exceptional young girl, someone who seems old before her time. There’s something of an accountant in her, yes, and also a lawyer, and also the crotchety old maid she’ll later become. She pursues revenge against Chaney with a businesslike dedication that doesn’t quite disguise the passionate feelings motivating her to set off on this course. The only place we disagree, at least a little, is that I don’t really believe Mattie is lacking these same qualities in Hathaway’s film. The Coens’ film deepens and expands upon the characters and relationships of the original film, presumably by drawing more on the novel, but the whole emotional and thematic foundation of this story is more or less present already in Hathaway’s film. If the Coens are more successful in developing some of those currents, as I suspect we both think they are, it’s a matter of emphasis and subtle tonal shifts rather than major departures.

Unlike you, I saw the Hathaway film relatively recently before seeing the remake, and without knowing what the Coens would do with the character, I saw Mattie in that film essentially as you describe her: single-mindedly obsessed with vengeance, driven to see her father’s killer punished, unwilling to let anyone push her aside or turn her away from her purpose. She’s not a “nagging tagalong,” she’s a girl grieving for her father but, because she is who she is, unable to express that in any way other than this thirst for justice and revenge. She certainly doesn’t have the depth that Steinfeld and the Coens bring to Mattie, but the emotions and motivations of the later film are definitely there, sometimes in skeletal form, in the original film. The Coens’ True Grit simply digs deeper into all of these characters to uncover what’s there.

A key scene for me, again, is the pivotal one after Rooster’s capitulation, when LaBoeuf is preparing to leave and Mattie tries to convince him to continue helping her. It’s one of the film’s most emotional scenes, and there’s nothing remotely like it in Hathaway’s film. Mattie begs LaBoeuf, who she’d previously dismissed as a “rodeo clown,” to replace Rooster as her agent of vengeance, and though LaBoeuf is moved by her despair, he knows that the hunt is hopeless now. In this moment, these two unlikely companions form a surprising bond of mutual respect. “I misjudged you,” Mattie says, “I picked the wrong man,” and LaBoeuf admits that he had also misjudged her. They shake hands, a sign of respect that resolves the tension of the earlier, disturbing scene where LaBoeuf spanks Mattie for trying to join him and Rooster. If he once saw her as a nagging child who needs to be punished, he comes to respect her resolve and her ability to deal with the violence she’s seen. In Hathaway’s film, LaBoeuf mostly remains a punchline until the climax, when he redeems himself by sacrificing his life; it’s only in death that he can be taken seriously. In the Coens’ film, even though LaBoeuf spends the second half of the film speaking with a ludicrous lisp due to biting his tongue during a gun battle, he has more dignity than his counterpart in the earlier film, and his handshake with Mattie is a wonderful moment for both characters.

I think that’s the main difference between these two films. The 1969 True Grit is a strange, flawed western with some very raw emotions percolating below its glossy surface. The Coens, seeing that potential in the film and its source, homed in on those emotions, fleshing out the characters and their relationships. That, and Steinfeld’s performance, is what makes this film’s Mattie so compelling, and what makes their version of this story resonate on more levels than the Hathaway film.

True Grit

JB: Sure, but it’s not just a matter of resonance. Indeed, the Coens give Mattie the spotlight more than Hathaway did, but I’m not simply arguing that Steinfeld’s Mattie is deeper or more complex than Darby’s. I’m suggesting that in subtle but significant ways these Matties are quite a bit different from one another. As evidence, I’d like you to consider the following scenes: (1) the hanging in the town square; (2) Mattie’s request for a capable marshal; and (3) Mattie’s initial threat to kill Tom Chaney. Even though these scenes are largely similar in both films, even sharing dialogue in a few cases, it’s here that the Matties begin to diverge from one another. Let’s count the ways…

1) The Hanging: In the Coens’ film, Mattie happens upon the public execution and pushes her way into the crowd, wearing an expression of fascination. She’s not quite vengeful, but she’s far from squeamish. These men have committed crimes that are punishable by death, and therefore they will be hanged—to Mattie it’s as simple as that, and it’s obvious she sees the hanging as an exercise in justice. In Hathaway’s film, on the other hand, Mattie attends the public hanging not out of interest but out of a lack of anything better to do, tagging along with her servant. “I’m here,” she says, “I’ll see it.” Only she doesn’t like what she sees. When the bodies dangle, she’s shaken: “My goodness,” she says softly, nearly trembling as she turns to walk away. Whereas Steinfeld’s Mattie seems to be fantasizing about the next time she watches someone swinging in the gallows, Darby’s seems uncomfortable with the exercise.

2) The Request for a Capable Marshal: The dialogue in the scene in which Mattie inquires about the best marshal is similar from film to film, but the responses of the Matties are subtly yet significantly different. In Hathaway’s film, Mattie patiently listens to the description of all three marshals, weighs her options and makes her choice. Her selection of the “meanest” marshal, over one who is the best tracker and another who is the “straightest,” not the “best” as in the Coens’ film, doesn’t seem to be connected to vengefulness so much as youthful naïveté: if Rooster is mean, he must be good. Simple as that. In the Coens’ film, however, while Mattie again requests the “best” marshal, when given a recommendation for one she doesn’t take it. Why? Because once the word “meanest” is used in reference to Rooster, Mattie’s eyes grow wide, her face lights up and she stops listening. Steinfeld’s Mattie thinks she wants the best, until the word “meanest” triggers her taste for vengeance. And thus the latter Mattie’s bloodlust continues to reveal itself.

3) The Threat to Kill Chaney: In both films, Mattie demands to accompany Rooster, but the tone of that demand is different from movie to movie. In Hathaway’s film, when Mattie mentions that she’ll be carrying her father’s gun and that she’s “prepared to kill Tom Chaney with it if the law fails to do so,” she seems most intent on goading Rooster into accepting the job—the old “if you can’t do it, I will” reverse-psychology trick. But in the Coens’ film, Mattie’s desire to take arms against Chaney seems to come from a darker place, as if she’s miffed that she might not get the chance to slay Chaney. While Darby’s Mattie inspires the sense that she would indeed pull the trigger if she had to, Steinfeld’s Mattie seems to want to pull the trigger, because she doesn’t just want Chaney dead, she wants to watch him die. When Bridges’s Rooster suggests that Chaney might already be dead somewhere in the wilderness, Mattie takes offense. “That would be a bitter disappointment,” she says.

So, in summation, do both Matties want Tom Chaney to hang for the murder of their father? Absolutely. But only one of them is desperate to watch Chaney bleed.

True Grit

EH: That’s a great breakdown of the differences in this character between the two films, although to quibble I’d say that your second example plays out pretty much the same in both films. What the other two examples come down to, I think, is the different attitudes about death evinced by these two films. In both films, death is central to the underlying themes. This is a revenge story, about a girl seeking the life of the man who killed her father, but both films go beyond that to examine attitudes about death, and especially Mattie’s attitude about death. Both films are about a girl who believes she’s strong and mature. She goes off with Rooster and LaBoeuf believing she’s fully prepared to kill her father’s murderer, but actually facing death, first at the hanging and then at the cabin where they meet Quincy and Moon (Domhnall Gleeson), puts her “grit” to the test. You’ve already described how the hanging plays out differently. In Hathaway’s film, Mattie watches the hanging not just because she happens to be there, but because, as someone who’s seeking a death sentence against Chaney, she feels she should be able to face this. But she finds that she’s not quite as steeled against death as she’d thought. In the Coens’ film, Mattie already has grit enough not to blink at this spectacle. The aftermath of the Quincy and Moon showdown is perhaps even more revealing in its differences.

In the original film, after Quincy and Moon die, Mattie forces Rooster to follow through on the promises he’d made to the dying Moon: to make sure that his body is buried, and to get word (and some possessions) to the dead criminal’s brother. Mattie doesn’t allow the bodies to be simply forgotten—by Rooster, or by the film. Rooster, Mattie and LaBoeuf bring the corpses of Quincy, Moon and some other outlaws to a nearby waystation, where the local lawman lifts the heads of the dead men one by one to identify them, looking each of them in the face. Many other films would have just moved on once the bad guys were dead, but death lingers in this film, it’s tangible and painful. It’s as though Hathaway is respecting the perspective of Mattie, who’s wise beyond her years but still manages to learn a great deal about death and dying over the course of this journey. She reacts to death, not with the casual shrug of Rooster—or indeed of her character in the Coens’ film—but with a real feeling for each life lost. Mattie is not sentimental. When she’s asked by the coroner if she wants to kiss her dead father, she says no, that his soul is already gone; she doesn’t believe that his cold body contains anything of his essence. But she still has respect for death, and for the body left behind when the spirit departs.

In the Coens’ film, Quincy and Moon die in pretty much the same way as they do in Hathaway’s version, but what happens afterward is very different. As in the earlier film, Mattie is upset that Rooster doesn’t plan to honor his promise and bury the dead men, but in this case she can’t convince Rooster to do it, and indeed she doesn’t really try very hard. Instead, the corpses are lined up as though sitting against the wall of the cabin, and as Rooster and Mattie ride away from the scene, the bodies are carefully positioned in the lower corner of the frame, subtly nagging at our vision and at Mattie.

This is a much more cynical vision of death, one that’s carried over into the scene where Mattie and Rooster come across the hanged man in the forest. This dead man is only important to them to the extent that he could be useful: Mattie wonders if it’s Tom Chaney, and Rooster just wants to know if it’s a friend or an enemy, someone he knows. Once they both realize it’s a stranger, the body becomes unimportant to them, and Rooster allows a passing Native American to take the body as a bargaining chip. Later we learn that the Native American’s trading was successful: he gave the body to an eccentric wandering doctor who wears a bear fur with the bear’s grinning head nearly covering his own face. When Mattie and Rooster encounter the doctor, he’s already pulled the dead man’s teeth, which is all he wants out of the corpse, so he offers to trade with them for the now-toothless body. One can see how the corpse will be passed around, gradually stripped of what’s valuable to various people who get a hold of it, the life that once inhabited that body meaning nothing to any of them. Where Hathaway’s film takes pains to emphasize a dignified, respectful approach to death, the Coens, perhaps unsurprisingly given their bleak worldview, treat death as a dark joke, the punchline of which is commodification and dismemberment.

True Grit

JB: I think you’re right. But while the Coens aren’t reverent about death and disfigurement, we should be careful not to imply that they’re entirely flippant about it. Because while the Coens have a reputation for dark humor, their true gift is their ability to let dark humor and genuine ghastliness (be it physical or emotional) coexist in the same frame. The best example of this, I’ve always thought, is the scene in Fargo when the two hired hoods show up at the Lundegaard residence to kidnap Jerry’s wife Jean. We know that the men have no intention of hurting Jean, and further that they have nothing against her; it’s Jerry’s plan, and they’re just the muscle. But Jean has no clue that these masked men aren’t as cold-blooded as they appear, or that one of them (Steve Buscemi’s Carl) is, in the parlance of True Grit, a nincompoop. So Jean runs around her house screaming hysterically. And while the Coens create humor out of that scene, they don’t, in my opinion, overlook Jean’s fear. Her histrionics are amusing, but they’re also totally justified. The Coens urge us to laugh at the spectacle while also feeling sympathetic for the victim. And in True Grit we get something of the same: the guy in the bear outfit is quintessentially Coensian—dark and peculiar—but even amidst all that oddity it’s hard not to feel for the dead guy on the back of the horse, who went from being hanged in a tree, to being ungracefully cut down, to being sold for parts. Perhaps he had a daughter, too. Perhaps he had grit.

Having said that, it’s probably time we trade thoughts about what these films have to say about violence and revenge, given the films’ focus on that subject. In a series of thought-provoking posts at Icebox Movies, Adam Zanzie expressed a moral objection to both True Grit films (while also finding much to compliment), calling Hathaway’s film “a pro-capital punishment diatribe, a celebration of vigilante authoritarian tactics and a glorification of the ’shoot first, ask questions later’ gun-toting hero,” and saying that the Coens’ film “is a complete rejection of the lessons of [Clint] Eastwood’s [Unforgiven],” which he argues had “so profoundly closed the door on ’frontier justice’ by telling the sad truths about it.” Elaborating further, Zanzie argues that True Grit “crassly reverses everything that the Coens have ever said to us in their films about crime, violence and religion,” suggesting that the Coens have “taken a step backward and made a film stressing another one of those banal insights about how crime doesn’t pay, coupled with a divine message (strictly Judeo-Christian) about how God will hold us all accountable for our actions.” I have my own thoughts on these issues, but let me start us off by asking this question: Do you think Hathaway’s film and the Coens’ film have similar attitudes about violence and revenge, and if not, or if so, what are those attitudes?

True Grit

EH: I think the Coens’ film is more conflicted in its attitudes than the earlier film. Adam is right, I believe, that Hathaway’s film is largely uncritical of the death penalty. Hathaway never questions Mattie’s desire for revenge, and, as Adam points out, her adversary Chaney is such an underdeveloped caricature of pathetic evil that it’s hard to feel even a twinge of sympathy for his death. I’m not entirely convinced it’s a major problem—as you point out in that comment thread, it is after all a fair portrayal of the actual system of vigilante justice and eye-for-an-eye morality that ruled the Old West—but I agree that that’s the political/moral subtext of the film. The Coens don’t entirely repudiate that perspective, but they do critique and complicate it in some subtle ways. We’ve already discussed some of the scenes that complicate the film’s attitude about capital punishment: notably the hanged man who becomes an object in the barter system, and Rooster’s testimony about the men he’s killed, with the implication that he’s lying about the circumstances of the killings. Another important scene is the dark joke involving the last words of the three prisoners who Mattie sees hanged: the two white men get to speak at length before they’re killed, but the Native American is abruptly cut off before he’s able to say more than a couple of words. That’s a pretty pointed comment directed at the racial inequities of the justice system, particularly surrounding the death penalty, which in modern America has always been disproportionately applied to racial minorities.

Perhaps nowhere are these two films’ respective attitudes about revenge and justice more apparent than in the much-remarked-upon differences between their endings. Hathaway’s film ends with Rooster and Mattie by her father’s grave, talking about their own plans for where they’ll be laid to rest. There’s more than a note of sadness in this coda—Mattie, already precocious in so many ways, has now matured before her time into an acute awareness of mortality—but the film’s final moment is a triumphant gag by Rooster that seems, more than anything, like Wayne’s self-conscious assertion of his continued masculinity and vigor even in spite of his status as a “fat old man.” The Coens end their film on a very different note. There’s no hint of triumphalism in their glimpse into the future, revealing Mattie as an old spinster who’s still much like her young self, although her age puts her personality into a very different perspective; it’s harder to take her combative attitude and stubbornness from a grown woman than from a precocious kid. To me, this anticlimactic epilogue, in which Mattie seeks out Rooster only to find that he’s dead, suggests a very Coensian moral takeaway: that in the long run all actions are pointless, that all that death and suffering and loss ultimately meant very little, and changed nothing.

Now, the film isn’t entirely down on revenge: when I saw it, people were cheering and clapping enthusiastically in the theater when Chaney gets shot, and I don’t think they were missing the point. The film’s climax is undeniably exciting, but what does Mattie get for her revenge? As Rooster rides her away from the scene of the shootouts and killings, her gaze woozily drifts over each of the dead bodies lying in the field; so much death has resulted from her stubborn drive for revenge. Then she loses her beloved horse, and her arm, and when we see her as an adult she hardly seems at peace or contented. I never got the sense that the film was suggesting, as Adam says, that “God will hold us all accountable for our actions,” even though Mattie clearly does believe that. The moral universe of the film is more ambiguous. It suggests that death is universal, that some people deserve what they get and some don’t, that cruelty is everywhere and sometimes it’s answered with more cruelty. Probably the best example is the weird little scene where Rooster encounters a pair of kids tormenting a donkey, and he frees the animal, knocking the kids away from it with offhanded disdain. It’s maybe the “nicest” thing he does until the climax, but his good deed consists of kicking a couple of kids—and then, when he passes by them again, he kicks one of them a second time, not to save a defenseless animal but, seemingly, just for fun. That doesn’t seem to me like the kind of scene that would be included in a film that’s trying to praise a black-and-white view of “frontier justice.” In most of the Coens’ films, “crime doesn’t pay,” and that’s true here as well—but as in their other work, being on the side of good doesn’t pay especially well either, and neither does revenge or justice. As the opening voiceover of the brothers’ first feature Blood Simple says, as a prelude to a bloody string of murders and vendettas, “nothin’ comes with a guarantee.”

True Grit

JB: On a similar note, as we learn in the Coens’ True Grit, “There is nothing free but the grace of God.” That’s what Mattie says near the start of the film after observing, “You have to pay for everything, one way or another.” Those two lines, along with the scenes you cite above, go far to suggest that this latest film actually fits rather nicely within the Coens’ body of work. That we pay for things “one way or another” is a nearly perfect way to sum up what we’ve seen over the years from the Coens, in whose films some folks are shot down by gunmen, and others are done in by natural disasters, and still others are doomed by landscaping appliances. The Coens’ world is one in which things rarely come easily, and in which even the good guys rarely come away unscathed. (Even Fargo’s saintly Marge Gunderson has to pay a price—having her faith in mankind shattered, tainting her opinion about the world into which she’s about to bring a child.)

And so it is in True Grit. In the film’s opening act, Mattie notes that she is confident that she is “firm in the right,” and that “the author of all things watches over me,” and we have little reason to doubt her. The bartering scenes with Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) are chiefly designed to show Mattie’s smarts and grit, but they also underline her rightness in that whenever Mattie threatens to get her lawyer involved, Stonehill acquiesces to her demands. Meanwhile, Tom Chaney’s guilt is reinforced both by LaBoeuf’s determined pursuit of him across several states and by the fact that, after shooting Mattie’s father, Chaney fell in with an even more notorious criminal, Ned Pepper. On top of all that, the hanging scene at the start of the film demonstrates that capital punishment is an unexceptional reality of life in the Old West—spectacle enough to draw a crowd but routine enough that the judge watches comfortably from his rocking chair. Put all this together and there’s no doubting that Chaney is guilty and that Mattie is justified in wanting him to pay the price, which in that time and place happens to be death. But that doesn’t mean that Mattie won’t have her own price to pay for her revenge.

That’s why I think the Coens’ film reinforces the lessons of Unforgiven, rather than defies them. Let’s not forget that Unforgiven, too, ends with a rousing, cathartic massacre in which all the bad guys get what they deserve. Alas, in becoming the taker of lives, justified though his actions are, Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny loses his soul, and to a lesser extent that’s what happens to Mattie. She has her vengeance, but she gets bit by a snake, she loses her horse, she loses her arm and, twice in a sense, she loses Rooster, who might have otherwise filled the void left by her father (as happens in Hathaway’s optimistic conclusion). “Nothing is free” for Mattie, not even serving as executioner for a man who committed a crime that was, to recall LaBoeuf’s use of Latin, malum in se (wrong by nature), not just malum prohibitum (wrong only because society or law prohibits it). If even Mattie must pay a toll for vengeance, then certainly the Coens are reminding us yet again that no one is allowed to tiptoe through the raindrops without getting wet. Or perhaps the Coens could be suggesting that Mattie’s self-defense and otherwise justified killing of Chaney was malum in se, if not malum prohibitum.

On that note, the Coens’ film gives us room to debate exactly how much Mattie is punished and exactly what for. Just before the film ends we learn that Mattie never went on to marry, and depending on your perspective that nugget of information could be viewed as a testament to Mattie’s fierce independence or as another bit of comeuppance for her acts of vengeance. In the first of a few posts on the subject at Unmuzzled Thoughts, Kelli Marshall argued the latter, noting that Mattie, like so many female characters before her, is punished not just for killing Chaney but, according to a long, sad tradition, for “her independent and strong-willed ways.” That post led to a debate on Twitter with Craig Simpson and Matt Zoller Seitz, who argued that Mattie’s post-amputation fate is neither Hollywood-conventional (Mattie doesn’t run off and marry LaBoeuf) nor is it a form of reparation (Mattie remains single by choice, she says). But while Kelli conceded specific arguments, she wasn’t wholly convinced. In a second post, she noted that while “Mattie’s final voiceover tells the viewer that she never found love or married because she ’[never had time to fool with it],’ … what does the frame show us? Steeliness, resoluteness, unhappiness, disfigurement, the semblance of spinsterhood.” I think Kelli has a point. There’s no debating that the Coens’ film has a great fondness for Mattie, even in the end, as evidenced by the way she mouths off to the man who she deems disrespectful, but her countenance is one of someone who has spent her entire life in mourning. It’s as if in taking away Chaney’s life, she lost her soul. To quote Mattie regarding her father’s corpse, her spirit has long since flown.

True Grit

EH: That’s a good point, and it all comes down to the tone of the ending. As Kelli says, Mattie’s adult voiceover maintains its flinty resolve, but the final shot of the film, of Mattie walking off into the distance, twists the typical “ride into the sunset” ending by making it a lonely, desolate image. The coda is really interesting in general. It’s a reminder of the artificiality of endings in storytelling, and of the old cliché that a happy ending is often a premature ending. By leaping forward so many years into the future, this film undoes the “happy ending” of Mattie getting her revenge and Rooster rescuing her from the snake bite. It also underscores that Mattie’s quest for vengeance has been the defining event of her life: even decades later, she still seems haunted by what she’d seen and done, marked by it not only in her phantom limb, but in her whole manner.

I don’t think Mattie is being punished—by God? by the filmmakers?—for her independence or her refusal to be confined by expected gender roles. She’s simply been deeply affected by the events of her childhood. “Nothing is free” indeed, and one senses in this coda that Mattie has paid a very high price for her revenge, not because she’s a woman, but because such bloodshed and ugliness weigh heavily on a person, and especially on a child. It’s easy to forget, because of her composure and her strong will, that Mattie is only fourteen when she sets off to find Chaney, but every so often she reminds us, as when she tells Ned Pepper, with deceptive calm, how terrible it was to see Quincy and Moon die in front of her. She’s matter-of-fact about it, as she is about everything, but she’s also honest in admitting that she was affected, that beneath her assured exterior she’s being shaken and changed by the things she’s seen. Some critics have asserted that the adult Mattie of the epilogue seems very different from the girl who appears throughout the rest of the film, but I don’t think there’s such a profound disconnect between them. She has the same fiery demeanor, the same impatience with the disrespect or foolishness of others, the same determination. The main difference seems to be a subtle air of sadness lingering around her, an extra edge of bitterness in her voice when she tells off the man who doesn’t stand for her, a hint of regret that her life hasn’t added up to more. That’s understandable, though: the defining event of her life happened when she was fourteen, and in a sense it’s all downhill after that.

True Grit

JB: Absolutely. Frankly, I find it refreshing that the Coens are thoughtful enough about Mattie to show the toll of those years, rather than pretending foolishly that who we are at fourteen is who we are at forty. I think you’re right that the film suggests that Mattie’s experience with Rooster was the most significant time of her life—and how couldn’t it be? She lost her father, killed a man and then lost her arm. That’s quite a week. Still, the elder Mattie reminds us that there have been a lot of years in between. As you said, it’s easy to trace this Mattie back to her youth, but she’s not the same. How could she be?

While we’re on the subject of tone and endings, it’s time to discuss not just Mattie but the series of events that happen after Mattie gets fanged by a rattlesnake. In both the Coens’ film and Hathaway’s, we feel the urgency of Rooster’s rescue attempt, riding hard back toward civilization in a desperate attempt to save the older girl/young woman for whom he has developed a somewhat paternal fondness. But I assume you’ll agree with me that the tones of these sequences are quite different from film to film. In Hathaway’s version, it’s a heroic and touching race against time, with Rooster eventually commandeering a horse and buggy and speeding back toward civilization like a stockcar driver heading for the finish line. It’s a rousing sequence, an uplifting sequence, a triumphant sequence. In the Coens’ version, the urgency is still felt but the tone is bleaker. The sequence ends with Rooster carrying Mattie in his arms and shuffling over the rugged terrain, huffing and wheezing like Little Blackie before him. He saves Mattie, but he never quite crosses the finish line, instead dropping to his knees within 100 yards of Bagby’s store and firing a pistol into the air. “I’ve grown old,” he says, announcing the obvious. Whereas Wayne’s Rooster confirms his validity, Bridges’s Rooster seems to be awakening to the reality that it’s time for him to be put out to pasture. He isn’t the man he used to be, whatever that was. Time has gotten away from him.

True Grit

EH: I think that’s right. The final ride in the Coens’ True Grit is a bleak, stylized nightmare, as Rooster mercilessly drives Mattie’s horse Little Blackie through an eerie, blue-black night that feels like the landscape as seen through Mattie’s fevered, hazy perspective. The sequence recalls the Grimm fairy tale aesthetic of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, and the end of this ride, when Rooster staggers towards the cabin with Mattie in his arms, recalls an earlier John Wayne picture, the John Ford-directed 3 Godfathers. In that film, an outlaw finds redemption through rescuing a child, and he similarly staggers towards civilization on his last legs. As you say, the Coens make this scene about Rooster coming to terms with his age, but it is also—and this applies to Hathaway’s version as well—about his redemption. Rooster had already proved that he was still capable of grit on the battlefield, when he rides into the final showdown with a gun in each hand and his horse’s reins clamped between his teeth. The ride to rescue Mattie is about a different kind of redemption: after proving that he can still kill people, he proves that he can save as well as destroy, that he can do good, that he’s more than just the “meanest,” most ornery and relentless of man-hunters.

The comparison to 3 Godfathers also reminds me of one of my favorite metafictional moments in the Coens’ True Grit: their subtle homage to Ford’s most famous film, The Searchers. The final shot of that film is probably one of the most frequently quoted and referenced images in cinema, probably because it’s such a simple, iconic shot that is nevertheless freighted with meaning: the door, framed by black, looking out at Wayne’s Ethan Edwards as he walks away into the barren landscape. So many directors have paid homage to that shot, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quoted with the irreverence of the Coens, who ironically tweak it by having Rooster loutishly interrupt the stately composition (with the mouth of a cave here replacing Ford’s door frame) by leaping into the center of the frame, firing off his gun and shouting. It’s such an interesting moment because it’d be easy to imagine a more straight-faced tribute to that composition with Rooster standing in for Ethan Edwards: like that other Wayne icon, Rooster is an ornery outsider who’s too uncouth for civilization. At the end of the film, Rooster, like Ethan, delivers a child back from the wilds, but he then returns to his position on the outside, as evidenced by Mattie’s attempts to locate him again many years later. Rooster, though, doesn’t walk sadly off into the distance as Ethan does: when he appears in that famous Searchers frame, he’s glaring at the camera, hollering and pointing his gun at the audience, announcing that he’s not the kind of antihero who goes quietly in the end.

True Grit

JB: Speaking of paying homage, one of the things I appreciate about the Coens’ film is that they demonstrate such respect for Hathaway’s original. The sight of John Wayne’s Rooster with reins in his teeth and guns in each hand, riding hard toward Ned Pepper’s gang for an outnumbered duel in a valley meadow is one of cinema’s classic images—the stuff of AFI clip reels. “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” is one of those lines that encodes on the brain via osmosis. Like Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contenda” line in On the Waterfront, you needn’t have actually seen the film to quote it and to feel its weight. The two best sequences in the Coens’ film, I believe, are Rooster’s ride through the night to save Mattie and Mattie’s determined crossing of the river with Little Blackie, but those aren’t the scenes that fans of True Grit came to see. We came to see Rooster put the reins in his teeth. That’s the signature moment of Hathaway’s film.

So how do the Coens handle it? Well, the shootouts themselves are something of a push. Hathaway’s film does a better job of stringing out the tension before the shootout to increase the drama of the gunfight. The scene opens with Lucky Ned and his gang emerging through some trees and stopping short. Then there’s a cut to a shot of Rooster, riding slowly out of trees at the other end of the meadow—his figure distant and small within the vast frame, yet still imposing. Then we get a terrific closeup of Duvall’s Lucky Ned, the camera tilted upward to capture the treetops and mountain behind him. Then we get a long shot of the meadow and the distant standoff: the bad guys on the left, the good guy on the right, setting the stage. From there, Hathaway mostly cuts back and forth between closeups of Rooster and Lucky Ned until the shooting begins. The pacing is superb. The staging is western-classic. The setting is spectacular. Here, in the prelude to the action, is where Hathaway’s film really shines.

In contrast, the standoff in the Coens’ film feels a bit rushed, as if it’s missing a few beats. But I absolutely adore how they get to this scene: Whereas Hathaway simply cuts from a shot of Mattie and LaBoeuf walking toward a view of the valley floor to a shot of Lucky Ned riding out of the trees, the Coens employ a crane shot that rises above LaBoeuf and Mattie as they turn to look down on the meadow below, much in the same way that Siskel and Ebert used to turn from their spot in the balcony toward the vast theater screen on At the Movies. This shot instantly emphasizes the proximity of LaBoeuf to Rooster, which isn’t incidental, but more significantly it acknowledges the cinematic significance of the scene that’s about to unfold. It’s as if the Coens are saying to the audience, “Yes, we know this is the scene you’ve been waiting for. It’s the scene we’ve been waiting for, too. So let’s all sit back and watch it unfold.”

What does unfold, for the most part, feels quite a bit like Hathaway’s film. I give the edge to the Coens in terms of their cutting of the action, and their treatment of the shot that kills Lucky Ned—capturing him from LaBoeuf’s distant view and creating a moment of uncertainty before Ned falls off his horse—but they don’t try to rewrite the scene in any significant way. They tip their cap to Hathaway’s interpretation and follow it rather closely. What’s most different about these scenes, as we’ve already implied, is the tone. In Hathaway’s version, Rooster redeems himself just by showing up. Only moments before, Mattie complains to Ned Pepper (of all people), “Rooster Cogburn is no good friend of mine. He’s a drunken, gabbing fool. He led me right into your hands, and now he’s left me with a gang of cutthroats. Is that what they call grit in Fort Smith? We call it something else in Yell County.” Thus, by taking on Lucky Ned, Rooster proves his grit—and if that wasn’t obvious, Mattie narrates the action: “No grit? Rooster Cogburn?” But in the Coens’ film, the shootout is less about Rooster than it is about the three collective heroes: Rooster taking on four armed men; LaBoeuf saving Rooster by gunning down Lucky Ned; and then, immediately after, Mattie killing Tom Chaney. In the Coens’ film, all of that runs together, redefining where the shootout starts and ends. In their film, Rooster doesn’t prove his grit with a gun—because we always believed he could use one well. He proves it by what happens next: carrying Mattie to safety.

True Grit

EH: Yes, and that brings us back to Adam Zanzie’s analysis of both of these films as violent revenge fantasies. In a subtle way, the climax of the Coens’ True Grit suggests that the real worth of Rooster Cogburn is not his status as what Adam calls a “’shoot first, ask questions later’ gun-toting hero,” but his compassion, his loyalty, his determination. Rooster is a killer, a mercenary and a drunk, but when it really matters he’s as effective without a gun as he is with one. The Coens’ film offers Rooster an honorable route into retirement, a role as a father figure that he pointedly does not take, choosing instead to join a travelling western revue of the kind that Robert Altman so poignantly and satirically examined in Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The Coens seldom go easy on their characters, and the missed connections and unresolved feelings lingering at the end of their True Grit are typical of the ambiguity and uncertainty of so many of their endings. Mattie isn’t quite punished for her violent, vengeful quest: she must simply go on living, dealing with the consequences of what she’s done and the kind of person she’s become.

The Coens achieve this more nuanced ending without entirely rejecting or upending Hathaway’s less complex film. As you say, the Coens leave many of Hathaway’s scenes virtually untouched in recreating them, tweaking the staging and editing in subtle ways but not reinventing the wheel when they’ve got a perfectly good, even iconic, action sequence to draw on. Hathaway’s film hints at some of the same issues stirred up by the Coens’ film—the fascination with death, the thin line between revenge and justice, the consequences of violence—but it’s a much lighter film in the end. Not only does it end with Wayne speaking through Rooster, asserting that he may be a “fat old man” but he can still jump a horse, but it draws liberally on the lineage of the John Wayne western. The central heroic trio can even be thought of as a variation on the cast of Howard Hawks’ legendary Rio Bravo/El Dorado/Rio Lobo cycle, with singer Glen Campbell taking on the fresh-faced Ricky Nelson role, Mattie filling the spot usually occupied by a Walter Brennan-type crotchety character actor, and Wayne himself playing both his own stoic lawman character and the Dean Martin/Robert Mitchum drunken sidekick. The villains are eccentric and memorable, too. That’s not really true of Chaney, who despite inspiring this revenge adventure winds up being almost incidental to it, a deliberately pathetic and disappointing anticlimax at the end of a long journey. (The Coens treat Chaney similarly, and even enhance the effect by not showing him at the beginning of the film, holding back his first appearance to intensify the disappointment.) But Hathaway at least makes Ned Pepper strangely charismatic, which is why it makes sense when Mattie confides her distaste for Rooster to him in the original film.

Those are the kinds of small differences that ultimately accumulate to make the Coens’ True Grit and Hathaway’s True Grit surprisingly different despite their surface similarities. One senses that the Wayne True Grit never takes itself entirely seriously, balancing the bloodlust and rage that drive the narrative with silly pratfalls and loopy dialogue, vacillating between gently mocking Wayne’s screen persona and redeeming it. This wavering tone has its charms, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that the Coens’ True Grit is the superior film, that it does a better job of pulling everything together into a coherent whole. Hathaway’s film is, like many late Wayne westerns, more about John Wayne than anything else, and it’s interesting for that. The Coens’ film, on the other hand, is about Rooster, and especially about Mattie, about the desire for revenge and its consequences, about confronting death, about growing old and growing up.

True Grit

JB: I agree. Hathaway’s film is about revenge and consequences and about growing up and growing old, but mostly it’s about our affection for John Wayne. That’s not a putdown. In fact, it’s touching that Wayne gets to pay tribute to his distinguished career in an equally distinguished—if lighthearted and sometimes goofy—manner. In light of the too many movies in recent years in which aged Hollywood stars of one caliber or another try to pretend that nothing’s changed despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (think: Sylvester Stallone) or simply fail to recapture the essence of what made them special in the first place (think: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal You’re Fucking With Me, Right? (sorry, Keith)), it shouldn’t be taken for granted that Hathaway’s True Grit works by playing to Wayne’s strengths. It was the right role at the right time.

On that note, credit the Coens for realizing that their True Grit couldn’t work in quite the same way—not unless Bridges played on his own image by going Full Dude, if you know what I mean. Whereas Hathaway’s film wins us over with nostalgia—and, to be fair, a pretty terrific final action setpiece that could have worked in any film—the Coens come at us from a different direction, offering a young actress we’ve never heard of and handing her the reins to carry in her teeth. This is Steinfeld’s film, and Mattie’s. Near the start of the movie there’s a terrific scene in which Mattie stuffs paper inside her father’s hat so that it doesn’t fall over her eyes, rolls up the sleeves of his coat to expose her hands and takes hold of his inelegant pistol, prepping for a gunfight like any western hero while underlining how far she is from actually being one. In that moment, Mattie is heading into a world that’s darker and more dangerous than she can comprehend, and Rooster is right to try to leave her behind. But when Mattie rides her horse into that river without a moment’s hesitation (“Go, Little Blackie!”) it becomes clear that this isn’t a swan song for a washed up hero so much as it is a celebration of a new one. Mattie is the one with true grit.

True Grit

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema. He can also be found on Twitter.

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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

3

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

3

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

3

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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