Friday, February 4, 2011

True Grit (2010)

TRUE GRIT (2010)

Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon

After the murder of her father, 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) travels to the town where he was killed by thief Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) to settle his affairs and to settle the score on his death. She attracts the attention of LaBoeuf (Damon), a Texas Ranger who has been on Chaney's trail for another murder, but Ross seeks out the help of Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (Bridges), a U.S. Marshall with the reputation of having "true grit." Cogburn is tough, but is also a drunk, which, among other things, impairs his abilities. Despite this, Ross hires Cogburn to take her into the Indian territory, where they are soon joined by LaBoeuf, on the hunt for Chaney.

True Grit is a simple story of revenge, but, like every one of their other films, the Coen brothers give it a layer of complexity. Unlike the original True Grit, starring John Wayne as Cogburn and Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf, which seemed outdated even when it was released in 1969, the Coen brothers' seems timeless, even epic at times, despite its simplicity. Never ones to shy away from unusual language, dialects or speech patterns (see The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo or The Ladykillers for just three examples), they made the really wise decision to go with the language of the time - 1880 - which turns out to be at times eloquent, flowery and above all, wholly without contractions. It's noticeable, and a refreshing contrast to movies that don't give a damn about dialect. Just watch Kevin Costner in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and you'll understand completely.

With few exceptions, the Coen brothers' films are well paced, clever and have their quirky moments, and True Grit is not an exception to what has become their norm. Oddball one-off characters punctuate the film, but don't steal the show from the full-bodied main characters, with perhaps the exception of Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), the feared leader of Chaney's gang who ends up being an interesting dichotomy of a murderous, but fair outlaw. Despite the fact that Westerns (followed closely by War films) are nearly my least favorite genre, there wasn't a single moment during the film when I wasn't completely interested and invested in what I was unfolding.

And Roger Deakins, god bless him. In my opinion, the greatest cinematographer in the business, hands down. Though his lush, breathtaking style wasn't there (or appropriate) for the first film I ever saw that he shot, Sid and Nancy, his work has transfixed me for years, and in particular, his many collaborations with the Coen brothers. I still remember walking out of a movie theater in Madison, where I'd just seen Fargo, realizing that, regardless of subject matter or content, I had just seen one of the most beautiful movies I'd ever seen in my life - thanks to Deakins. His photography doesn't disappoint in True Grit, and whether it is scenes peppered with snowfall, vast shots of the wilderness or a closeup of the flushed but determined Maddy Ross, his masterful work is recognizable and something to behold.

Where the hell did Hailee Steinfeld come from? When I did some research on her in preparation for writing this review, there wasn't anything of note, yet she gave what was one of the greatest performances I've seen on screen in the past year, and certainly the best by someone so young since Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. She was steely, but vulnerable, precocious and intelligent. She was up against two established and accomplished actors, and beat them both out as the most interesting person on the screen. Jeff Bridges was good, but wasn't really anything more than a meaner version of The Dude, but with a really bad mumbling problem. (Truthfully, I had a hard time understanding most of what he said without straining to translate it.) I'm not a fan of Matt Damon on any planet, but I actually enjoyed his supporting role and appreciated his effortless interpretation of a tough guy who's really kind of a buffoon. And though the film wouldn't exist without him, the character of Tom Chaney had very little screen time, but Brolin did a great job being the feared mean guy who is actually really uncool and whiny, but dangerous, nonetheless.

Despite a few missteps, I thought True Grit was nearly flawless. It's certainly not my favorite Coen brother film, but truthfully, the worst Coen brother films tend to be better than anything that passes for mainstream entertainment, so the scale is a little skewed. Though not epic in terms of scope or action, True Grit is full-bodied; kind of like listening to Rachmaninoff - it's not showy or garish but when you do experience it, it's exquisite.

4 out of 5 stars

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