Parents seemed to haunt the cinema of 2010 more than usual, as it seemed that every third picture I saw somehow involved a complicated or fractured or broken relationship between a parent and child. Two of the best pictures I’ve seen this year turn on the theme of a child seeking resolution for a missing father who is either certainly or probably dead, and both feature striking performances by young women who will almost certainly move onto more major things. And there are about ten other interesting pictures – one discussed below – that play with a fractured family dynamic.
If you asked me what I thought of the Coen Brothers ten years ago, I would’ve told you that they’re an intelligent, talented team who make pictures that are sometimes wonderful and that are sometimes suffocated by their own cleverness. In other words, I would’ve given you the rap that’s typical to the person who admires them with a bit of suspicion that they’re somehow holding something out on us. What a difference time can make. Whatever the Coens were holding back – and I think the issue was that they seemingly tended to throw in gags and bits simply to prove that they were capable of inventing them – they have more than offered in the last five or six years with a run of films that eclipses in prolificacy, consistency, subtlety, and pure old-fashioned damn film craft any American filmmaker currently working. The visible construction that nagged earlier Coen works, and that seems to nag virtually every American director of note working today, has been shed.
True Grit, obviously a remake of the not-bad, not-great earlier movie that won John Wayne his Oscar, follows this tradition. I’ve read a few writers that have (sometimes even admiringly) characterized this new Coen picture as a fun genre piece, basically saying that it’s a well-earned opportunity for the directors to screw around in the Wild West and make money while their next big exploration of the symbolic end of the world percolates in their heads. That tells you that the Coens have grown more confident – their preoccupations arise naturally from the story, which speaks for itself, and which is imbued with every bit as much “meaning” (a troublesome word) as No Country for Old Men or A Serious Man. (People seemed to miss the point of the superb Burn after Reading, because that was fleet with its “meaning” as well.)
True Grit still concerns Rooster Cogburn, who is still a drunk, debauched, overweight, one-eyed U.S Marshall roped into helping a girl, Mattie, whose father has been killed by another drunk who has high-tailed to somewhere in the dangerous Choctaw terrain with a gang led by a rather grotesque something called Lucky Ned Pepper. Cogburn is still even played by a modern legend, in this case Jeff Bridges, who gives the role a magnetically dirtier interpretation that accomplishes two things: he “modernizes” the role with details and texture more appropriate to this age of Deadwood, while still knowingly playing into the mythical cool of Jeff Bridges. This is a funnier (though similar) performance than Bridge’s work in Crazy Heart, as this performance is less rigidly determined to achieve iconography (which means that Bridges achieves iconography).
Mattie is played by Hailee Steinfeld in a performance of tough generosity that rises to the Coens’ refusal to condescend to her as many child actors are in many films. The dialogue, quite a bit of which I’ve heard is taken from the Charles Portis novel (unread by me), is lean, revealing and often poetic (it sounds like the sort of indicative period specific-yet-stylized conversation that the Coens would create themselves) and Steinfeld speaks it with a grace and unfussy over-compensating defensiveness that is often quite moving. The casting informs the subtext: Steinfeld is mixing it up with larger than life personalities – Bridges, Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBeouf, Josh Brolin as the drunk and ultimately pathetic murderer Chaney – which reflects the character’s struggle to attain some measure of dignity as well as a confirmation that the world is fair; that killers can be brought to justice and that wrongs can be righted.
Damon gives career-best caliber work here (I wish more directors understood that he’s more interesting and varied when asked to be at least vaguely funny) and he and Steinfeld share the picture’s best scene, which is also one of the best moments to play out in a Coen picture. The band has suffered several demoralizing set-backs in their attempt to nab Chaney, including Rooster’s booze-addled resignation, and LaBeouf, memorably proclaiming that he’s “diminished”, faces Mattie with the admission that this pursuit isn’t winnable. Mattie and LaBeouf reach a plane of understanding – a moment of beauty among a number of moments of considerable disappointment – that charges the picture’s final third with a pulse of melancholic humanity that’s every bit the equal of No Country for Old Men, only without McCarthy’s labored last of the doomed good men moralizing. True Grit, of course, is impeccably made in a formal sense by the Coens’ usual collaborators (composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Roger Deakins outdo themselves – again). This movie looks a lot to me like a classic – it’s an ideal example of brilliant filmmakers working in the pop form without “diminishing” themselves, without treating us like fools. The picture brings to the forefront what has always been the filmmakers’ chief concern: that human decency is the ultimate gift in this existence of distressing, baffling impermanence.
It seemed to be the year of parents and – more excitingly – fabulous ensembles: True Grit, Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, Wild Grass, Cyrus, Mother and Child. Let’s briefly talk about Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right, and table a few of the others for a piece to happen in hopefully a few days.
Winter’s Bone would make an interesting double-bill with True Grit. Both pictures are concerned with the same story and even the same theme. Winter’s Bone is also about a young woman who must rally considerable courage for survival, though Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) admittedly finds herself in more severe circumstances than Mattie. Ree is a seventeen year-old living seemingly deep in the harsh, cold Ozarks who cares for her mentally incapable mother and younger siblings. The father is gone, which soon causes a problem as he’s put the house up for a bail bond in order to promptly disappear. The father – a meth manufacturer with a habit of angering local people who shouldn’t be angered – is almost certainly dead; and few in the community indulge any pretenses otherwise. But, without proof, Ree and her family are homeless, and their already fragile domestic existence will collapse. To find her father Ree must navigate the Ozark meth community, many of whom are relatives, which pulls her into an underworld that director Debra Granik elevates to the level of myth.
I feel compelled to offer the qualification that many other admirers of Winter’s Bone have offered: it isn’t Frozen River, or any other number of pictures that rub your face in liberal poverty guilt. This picture offers surprising beauty among the damaged faces and barren landscapes. Winter’s Bone follows a girl willing to die for a slight consideration that, for her, means everything. The story is also, as Craig Kennedy recently wrote, surprisingly “movie-movie” in that it updates situations familiar to noir – the tortured anti-hero, the forbidden world, the dark secrets – to a contemporary social situation without a lot of deadly dull meta nonsense like overhead shots of twirling fans or dames crossing their legs with red high heels. Lawrence is as good as you’ve heard; she digs down, suppressing all of the vulnerability that her character would, in fact, need to suppress. The rest of the cast is equally superb, particularly Dale Dickey as a vicious/ambiguous Mother Hen and John Hawkes as an uncle endangered by Ree’s prodding. Dickey and Hawkes convey a tricky emotional truth that most movies fumble: the love that can be hidden in particularly domestic violence. (Both beat the shit out of Ree for reasons that we loathe but understand.) This picture also builds to two of the great scenes of last year: the eventual arrival of the villain is terrifyingly understated, and Ree’s ultimate discovery has the macabre purifying catharsis of a good Southern gothic story.
The Kids Are All Right is engagingly written and performed, but the last third mildly killed it for me. Annette Bening gives a quiet, funny, nervous performance as a rigid, professional, potentially alcoholic wife and mother who finds her family hijacked by her children’s sperm donor, a hunky, painfully hip organic farmer and restaurant owner played by the just-as-good-in-his-way Mark Ruffalo. Bening’s wife is played by Julianne Moore, and she is the prototypical, continually unemployed free spirit who gravitates toward Ruffalo’s somewhat aloof self-absorption. Moore makes an error common to many of us: she mistakes desperation for a Zen fulfillment. The picture becomes a kind of pentagon of love and misunderstanding, and it might have been a very diverting film if the talented co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko hadn’t tied it up so neatly in an ending that rigidly evens all of the ledgers. Her Laurel Canyon, taken with similar themes of familial obligation, was more open and mysterious. The last twenty-five minutes – with the big speeches and pat resolutions – is the reason smarty critics have called The Kids Are All Right a glorified sitcom. And they’re not entirely wrong.