Theatrical Space in True Grit

In continuing to think about True Grit (2010), one of the things I noticed about the film is how theatrical some elements were. That is, there seemed to be a lot of emphasis on stages, literal and figurative, and on presenting scenes as if putting them on stage. A lot of the theatricality seems to foreshadow the final scenes of the film—in which it is revealed that Rooster Cogburn has joined a Wild West show, and that, in his final days, he was involved in putting the Wild West on the (outdoor) stage.

One of the earliest scenes, the hanging, takes place (almost literally) on a stage before an audience, complete with monologues from the primary actors, and ending with dramatic action.

The main characters alternate between being spectators and becoming actors, alternately performing and watching each other perform.  Early on, Mattie is a spectator, watching the hanging, watching Rooster perform as a witness in the trial scene.  However, in the sequence where Mattie crosses the river on Little Blackie, she becomes a performer in her own right, as we cut to shots of Rooster watching the action, as he has become the spectator.

Several scenes are shot as if the action was taking place in an arena, and the camera is looking down on the action. This might also suggest the viewpoint of being in the stands at an outdoor Wild West show. At least, I was reminded of  historical photographs I’ve seen of turn-of-the-century Wild West shows when watching the way the action was orchestrated in these scenes.

While staking out the cabin, Mattie and Rooster look down as LaBoeuf enters the scene, stands ups to the outlaws, and is lassoed. We hear the dialogue faintly as if from a distance. The cleared area outside of the cabin makes a natural stage. In this sequence, the difference between audience and performance is elided, as spectators finally  participate in the onstage action, affecting events that initially seem unaffectable because of the distance—Rooster firing into the group of outlaws (and hitting LaBoeuf as well).

In the climactic scene of Rooster facing down the five (four?) riders, that viewpoint is replicated with Laboeuf and Mattie the spectators watching the action play out below them on a flat plain. When I saw this scene in the theater, it reminded me of Thomas Cole’s paintings of scenes from The Last of the Mohicans, in which the characters are presented on a stage-like clearing, tiny figures in comparison to the surrounding sublime landscape.

In True Grit, we observe from so great a distance that there’s a long pause after LaBoeuf’s rifle shot, and we think he missed, but, in part we are waiting because the distance is so great that it takes a long time for the effect of his shot to be realized. Part of the shock of the scene, though, may be in the violation of theatrical space, as if a spectator from the back of the balcony had suddenly intervened in the performance on stage. One of the things I liked about the film was the emphasis on distance. When Rooster fires his gun as a signal to the watching Ned Pepper, we see the gun fire a long second before we hear the report.

Further comments, observations, or thoughts on True Grit are welcome!

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One Response to “Theatrical Space in True Grit”

  1. Fenimore Says:

    Michael’s got me thinking about the role that the soundtrack plays in this rhythmic distancing of perspective. I remember noticing the alternation of traditional sweeping orchestral “western” music with more intimate (and synchronistic) folk-flavored music. I was especially aware of this in the final scenes, when the epilogue (as I remember) is set to a honky-tonk solo piano, a striking contrast from the mythic sweep of stars as Cogburn brings Mattie “home.”


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