I am drawn to roguish heroes, those protagonists who dabble outside the lines of law and order. One reason is they’re so unpredictable. Supense builds easily because it’s hard to know what they’ll do next.
This weekend I found myself watching two rogues from the films “Michael Clayton” and the new “True Grit.” Both heroes in their own way are “fixers.” One is a modern-day operator who knows how to minimize your legal hassles and the other an old-West gunman who for a price will hunt down those who have wronged you. And both films benefited nicely by the caliber of actors in the leading roles (George Clooney and Jeff Bridges).
But which story held me more in suspense? As a Western lover from long ago (“Come back, Shane!”), I was surprised I had to give the suspense vote to “Michael Clayton.” That film had me in its last scenes, where Clooney confronts the conniving female general counsel of the pesticide company (Tilda Swinton). “What’s he going to do?” I kept asking myself. I was caught up in the ending.
“True Grit” also had some suspenseful moments in its earlier scenes. But once Mattie Ross, its young heroine, gets captured by outlaws, I was surprised that I wasn’t gripped more with questions of what would happen next. The film’s directors, the Coen Brothers, certainly have held me on the edge of my seat in past films. And they had their chance here with a kidnapped female. (Wasn’t it Hitchcock’s rule to make the woman suffer?) But I wasn’t drawn in by their approach: an angry outlaw throws young Mattie down, puts a knife to her throat and vows to murder her. I couldn’t overcome my disbelief that Mattie, the narrator, would get killed, so it was hard to feel gripped with suspense. Instead, I simply looked for her escape.
Yes, the film does give us the long-awaited showdown between Rooster Cogburn and the outlaws, and still more drama afterward where Mattie’s life continues to be put at risk. But it didn’t stir me. The film was worth seeing, but it also was a good reminder that if you want to mesmerize your audience, you have to give them the means to wonder and to get caught up in how the story will turn out. To grab us, suspense needs something to grab onto.
— Robert Digitale