True Grit/Winter’s Bone

Because I can’t get to all the nominated films before the big show on Sunday, I’ve brought in a guest blogger. Although her motion sickness issues are not quite as pronounced as mine, she does have a trigger-hair gag reflex, so at least that’s something. Meet KADC, (pronounced like “catz” only the z sounds like an s), who will take you on a slow slow trot through two tales involving plucky teenage girls and meth dealers. Well, there’s meth in at least one of them, and who knows what Josh Brolin has in his saddlebags.

Shaky inner ears need not feel any trepidation when settling in to experience True Grit: go ahead and get that greasy popcorn and giant soda (though I’m adding “slurping” to cell phone checking and chatting on my list of annoying cinema behaviors). Almost universally this film is described by terms like “classic” and “old-fashioned Western.”

The Coen brothers leisurely unfold their story through wide, bright landscape shots, dim interiors lit by filtered sun or firelight, night scenes and enough silhouettes to rival a shadow puppet theater. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who also shot “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo,” and a host of other non-Coen films, is up for his ninth Oscar nomination this year. His steady, beautiful camerawork adds nuance and context to the main characters: Jeff Bridges’ slovenly Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon’s prissy LaBoeuf and Hailee Steinfeld’s preternaturally self-confident Mattie Ross. (Deakins is nothing if not versatile, though, since his work on the underrated 3-D How to Train Your Dragon rivals Avatar with its vertiginous flying scenes.)

But don’t get lulled into complacency. True Grit characters may talk without contractions and make slow progress as they bicker their way through western Arkansas to catch the villain who shot Mattie’s pa (a fearlessly unlikeable Josh Brolin) but the Coens throw in the occasional shocking scene that quickens the pulse and might provoke a hair-trigger gag reflex.

The real shocker, especially to those who remember the 1969 original that earned John Wayne an Oscar, is the epilogue. I’ve read that it’s true to Charles Portis’ book but it’s tacked on after a dramatic peak and stops the movie cold, dashing any warmth we might feel about the characters’, well, character development.

Barf Bag Ranking: ZERO BAGS

Winter’s Bone bears some eerie similarities to True Grit this Oscar season: It’s a quest saga starring a steely young heroine who must convince those around her that’s she’s worthy of their attention as she fights to protect her family. (editor’s note: I keep imagining Wayne and Garth saying “Winter’s Bone and giggling. Kind of make it hard to take the movie seriously after that.—flicks) It’s set in the present-day Ozarks but the suspicious, violent web of outlaws 17-year-old Ree Dolly must navigate to fulfill her search for her father could easily have been set 150 years ago—or in a foreign culture, for that matter. Save for the meth-cooking aspects.

Director Debra Granik lays out her story at a pace that allows us to really absorb the spare dialogue and telling details of the poverty and crippling insularity of her characters. It would work just as well as a silent film, since words are sparse and spoken in near whispers. I watched it on TV via an Amazon stream; I think that the effect of the bleak winter settings would be magnified to a painful size on a big screen but wouldn’t produce any stomach churning. I did shut my eyes briefly during a grisly scene that really showed nothing but was so evocative that I imagined everything.

Not a feel-good movie here, but it does have a relatively happy ending that leaves us with a bit of hope. The acting is superb and vanity-free all around, from Ree’s young siblings to the clan of hard-bitten women and meth-addled men. John Hawkes, who I’ve loved since his “Deadwood” role, is riveting and Jennifer Lawrence holds the film’s center with quiet fortitude. The film’s soundtrack of traditional American music is a gorgeous relief to the grim story.

Barf Bag Ranking: ZERO BAGS

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