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 Chomet’s The Illusionist breathes life into a celluloid fossil—The 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 movies—despite a prolonged meet-cute as little Mattie stubbornly attempts to roust Rooster from a rustic privy to secure his aid in tracking her father’s murderer into Indian territory.

The Coens are still themselves. As one colleague remarked—unprompted—upon 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 a—dare one say—Native American.) But True Grit’s most serious lapse is more aesthetic than ethical—and less Hollywood than film-school. The brothers repeatedly invoke a superior movie—not the 1969 True Grit, which is, Wayne’s 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 Dude’s Rooster is more nuanced and less overbearing than the Duke’s, as well as more original. (Wayne lifted many of his gravel-voiced mannerisms from Hollywood’s Depression-era pug-ugly Wallace Beery.) Never less than disciplined, Matt Damon is a strong foil to Bridge’s rumbling, stumbling, grumbling, grizzled scapegrace, as the upstanding, mildly pompous Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (a part originally played—for the kids!—by singer Glen Campbell), who joins the magical mystery tour.

Once constituted, the posse makes for a mouthy, self-aggrandizing trio, although it’s relentless little Mattie who serves as the movie’s key gimmick; even feistier than the much-lauded heroine of Winter’s Bone, she’s self-possessed, schoolmarmish, full of sass, and downright uncanny. “I am puzzled—what is she doing here?” LaBoeuf more than once wonders in the oddly formal, faux–Mark Twain diction that characterizes the dialogue.

The Coens manage to render Choctaw country uncanny as well—the spectacle of a corpse dangling from a tree and a bear seemingly bestride a horse are portents worthy of Jim Jarmusch’s 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, Wayne’s 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 genre’s remaining moral pretensions. The Coens’ True Grit is considerably more faithful to Charles Portis’s novel than was the 1969 movie and consequently far darker.

For years now, just about every credible Western—Unforgiven, Dead Man, Wild Bill (Walter Hill’s near-forgotten vehicle for a far more ferocious Bridges), The Assassination of Jesse James—has been an oddity, if not a walking corpse. True Grit belongs with these ghost stories and, in suggesting that we’re all haunted by things we can’t 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 romance—additionally so in that animator Sylvain Chomet, perpetrator of the splendid retro-toon The Triplets of Belleville, was given the source material by Tati’s 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 Tati’s alter ego, Hulot, but as Tati himself. Ungainly yet dignified—given a vaguely aristocratic mien, as well as Tati’s actual name, Tatischeff—the 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 bar’s 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, Chomet’s 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, he’s 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 Chomet’s 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.