Old Souls Get a Second Life in True Grit and The Illusionist
Can these dry bones live? Each in its way, the Coen brothers True Grit and Sylvain Chomets The Illusionist breathes life into a celluloid fossilThe Illusionist in lovingly animating an unproduced script by the great Jacques Tati, True Grit by boldly reanimating the comic Western that secured John Wayne his Oscar 41 years ago.
Opening with a strategically abbreviated Old Testament proverb (The wicked flee when none pursueth), True Grit is well-wrought, if overly talkative, and seriously ambitious, returning the Coens to the all-American sagebrush and gun smoke landscape that has best nourished their wise-guy sensibility (Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men). This perverse buddy tale, in which an implacable 14-year-old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) bonds in vengeance with the one-eyed, one-note bounty-hunting windbag marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in the Wayne role), is one of the brothers least facetious moviesdespite a prolonged meet-cute as little Mattie stubbornly attempts to roust Rooster from a rustic privy to secure his aid in tracking her fathers murderer into Indian territory.
The Coens are still themselves. As one colleague remarkedunpromptedupon leaving the screening where True Grit was previewed for New York critics, They always do something to make you hate them. (In my case, the moment happened early on with a gag based on the hanging of adare one sayNative American.) But True Grits most serious lapse is more aesthetic than ethicaland less Hollywood than film-school. The brothers repeatedly invoke a superior movienot the 1969 True Grit, which is, Waynes built-in mythic valence aside, in every way inferior to the Coen version, but the 1955 classic Night of the Hunter, whose recurring hymn, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, is repeated throughout the new True Grit.
For the most part, the Coens is a highly enjoyable yarn, stocked with pungent bushwa and a full panoply of frontier bozos. However hammily he rasps and fumfers, the Dudes Rooster is more nuanced and less overbearing than the Dukes, as well as more original. (Wayne lifted many of his gravel-voiced mannerisms from Hollywoods Depression-era pug-ugly Wallace Beery.) Never less than disciplined, Matt Damon is a strong foil to Bridges rumbling, stumbling, grumbling, grizzled scapegrace, as the upstanding, mildly pompous Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (a part originally playedfor the kids!by singer Glen Campbell), who joins the magical mystery tour.
Once constituted, the posse makes for a mouthy, self-aggrandizing trio, although its relentless little Mattie who serves as the movies key gimmick; even feistier than the much-lauded heroine of Winters Bone, shes self-possessed, schoolmarmish, full of sass, and downright uncanny. I am puzzledwhat is she doing here? LaBoeuf more than once wonders in the oddly formal, fauxMark Twain diction that characterizes the dialogue.
The Coens manage to render Choctaw country uncanny as wellthe spectacle of a corpse dangling from a tree and a bear seemingly bestride a horse are portents worthy of Jim Jarmuschs Dead Man. The brothers have always been good on scary outlaws (in this case, Josh Brolin) and, with its sod houses and bleak weather, their West is as inhospitable as it should be.
Despite, or perhaps because of, Waynes clownish performance, True Grit I was the comfortingly normal middle-American Western of its season, opening at Radio City in time for July Fourth, a week after The Wild Bunch splattered screens with war-movie carnage and a few months before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid insouciantly trashed the genres remaining moral pretensions. The Coens True Grit is considerably more faithful to Charles Portiss novel than was the 1969 movie and consequently far darker.
For years now, just about every credible WesternUnforgiven, Dead Man, Wild Bill (Walter Hills near-forgotten vehicle for a far more ferocious Bridges), The Assassination of Jesse Jameshas been an oddity, if not a walking corpse. True Grit belongs with these ghost stories and, in suggesting that were all haunted by things we cant understand, it carries its own Coen-trademarked mystery. Whereas the full Biblical proverb that introduces True Grit ends with praise for the bravery of the righteous, the Coens cut directly to the chase, suggesting only the power of a guilty conscience.
Like True Grit, The Illusionist is, at least in part, a chaste father-daughter romanceadditionally so in that animator Sylvain Chomet, perpetrator of the splendid retro-toon The Triplets of Belleville, was given the source material by Tatis own daughter.
Chomet sets The Illusionist on the cusp of the 60s, around the time Tati wrote the script as a follow-up to his hit Mon Oncle; the animator presents his title character, a middle-aged, itinerant stage magician, not as Tatis alter ego, Hulot, but as Tati himself. Ungainly yet dignifiedgiven a vaguely aristocratic mien, as well as Tatis actual name, Tatischeffthe illusionist is introduced with a series of mildly disastrous performances in Paris (where he is compelled to play straight man to his obstreperous rabbit) and London (sharing the bill with an obnoxious quartet of proto-Beatles mop-tops). The London fiasco is a prelude to a tour of the highlands. The magician gives his most appreciated performance in some back-of-beyond Scottish pub. When he leaves for Edinburgh, the bars naïve young slavey, an unprepossessing slip of a girl named Alice, tags along, convinced that his conjuring tricks really are magic.
At once recognizable and improbable, sketchy and detailed, Edinburgh is, the illusionist aside, Chomets main character. (The movie ends with the shop lights on Princes Street going out.) Tatischeff and Alice move into a hotel full of depressed circus types and separately explore a city populated by cheerful drunks. Alice longs for new, grown-up clothes and, as if by magic, the illusionist provides them. (Unknown to her, and a source of comedy for us, hes been working nights in a garage and doing department-store sale demos, for extra money.)
Although more wistful than the hyper-energetic Triplets, The Illusionist is equally comic. (As in Tati or Triplets, there is far more noise than dialogue.) No less impressive than Chomets character animation is his sense of timing. For its 80 minutes, the movie creates the illusion that not just Tati but his form of cerebral slapstick lives. Late in the movie, M. Tatischeff leaves Alice a note, explaining, Magicians do not exist. The Illusionist means to demonstrate that they do.
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