True Grit (2010)

10 Jan

If I told you what the exact nature of their relationship is, you wouldn't believe me. Just go see this great movie.

When I first heard rumblings of a remake of “True Grit,” I complained. Then I learned the Coen Brothers were helming the update, and I stopped grumbling. If any filmmakers are to be trusted with presenting an updated version of a beloved Western, it’s the Coens. They have displayed an appreciation for sparse scenery and restrained emotion which makes them ideal candidates for re-inventing (or perhaps reviving?) the genre. As it turns out, my faith in the Coens was well-placed. With “True Grit,” they delivered an elegant, yet entertaining, update of both the original film and the genre.

Young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is left to settle her father’s business after he is gunned down by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a hired hand. Chaney makes off with her father’s horses and two of his California gold pieces, and Mattie means to see justice for all of it. Unfortunately, the local peacekeepers aren’t too bothered about catching up with Chaney, who has likely headed into Indian territory and runs with a rough gang headed up by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). It’s too risky for them to pursue, but they suggest Mattie could hire a U.S. Marshal to take up the bounty. She asks for the best, and is given two names. One is a man who is the best tracker but will sometimes let a bounty go if he deems it prudent. The other is a marshal by the name of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man described as ruthless. Mattie decides on Cogburn.

He takes some convincing. She finds him to be an unapologetic drunk, seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction. He names his price and names it high, perhaps thinking it will be impossible for the girl to match. When she does, he agrees to take on her bounty. The marshal joins forces with a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBeouf (Matt Damon). He’s been tracking Chaney for several months over a murder back in Texas. The pair initially resist Mattie’s attempt to join them on the hunt, but her mettle wins Cogburn over, and the unlikely trio sets out on an uncertain trail.

Jeff Bridges is really a joy in this role. He gets to be charming and funny and dangerous and wise ... it's great fun to watch.

The idea of a 14-year-old girl narrating this tale of violence and connivery could tip the balance toward sentimental in lesser hands, but the Coens stay true to their usual detachment and prevent the story from becoming anything approaching twee. This adaptation is said to be truer to the original novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 film, but as I have neither read the novel nor seen the original John Wayne film, I can’t attest to any similarities or differences. However, I have difficulty imagining a 1969 film with a teenage protagonist being as gritty and unblinking as the one the Coens have made, and it’s that willingness to go there despite the tender age of one of the principals that makes “True Grit” great fun to watch. This is a movie that — despite its graphic violence and realistic (read depressing) depiction of life in the Old West — is honestly and truly funny. It borders on screwball in parts. It’s littered with shot-from-the-hip one-liners that had me giggling and blustery speeches that had the entire audience at my showing laughing. The humor brings an edge to the tale, prevents it from becoming maudlin and balances out nicely with the more somber action.

The photography is gorgeous in its minimalism as the action moves through varied landscapes and weather. The action centerpiece of the film is the nighttime shootout — is it a first in the genre? Some critics seemed to think so. The Coens’ no-frills style is refreshing in this case, allowing the viewers to watch what takes place without swooping them through the gunfire. One of my favorite aspects of the Western genre is the sparse scenery, the jaw-dropping vistas and as-far-as-the-eye-can-see landscapes, and “True Grit” delivers those in heaps. It’s a lovely film.

But the strength of performances is what makes this movie truly special, and it’s young Mattie Ross that holds the men — and the mission — together. Steinfeld dominates the film, going toe-to-toe with heavyweights Damon and Bridges and measuring up time and again. She simply sparkles. There’s a scene very early in the movie where Ross is attempting to get compensation from the man who was corralling the horses Chaney stole from her father. The dialogue alone in this sequence would shred a lesser actress, but Steinfeld manages to not only deliver the rapid-fire exchange with perfect timing, but she also never lets the light-hearted scene fly away. The reason for her wheeling and dealing, the reason why she is forced to maneuver through this world of adults is the murder of her father. Steinfeld lets the gravity of that truth show through and keeps the film rooted. Without her passionate portrayal of the character’s unwavering conviction, the film would come loose at the seams.

Which isn’t to say that the youthful thespian is the lone inspiring performance. Bridges is especially wonderful as the down-but-not-yet-out Rooster Cogburn. The character is striving to straddle the line between saint and sinner, and this duality gives Bridges a lot to play with. He’s funny and charming — and yes, there’s maybe a little of The Dude in the role — but he’s never a joke. Bridges manages to sneak in a sense of sly wisdom among the trappings of buffoonery, and he plays the marshal as a dangerous man. When the film reaches its climax and we see the proof of Cogburn’s mettle, we also see the true genius of Bridges’ portrayal. The character of Rooster Cogburn is that of a man who has put on a mask, and maybe he’s aware that he’s done this and maybe he isn’t. We don’t know. But we see the exact moment when this persona drifts away, and it’s not in dialogue or some clever narration, it’s all in the face of Jeff Bridges.

LaBeouf is a different sort of role for Matt Damon. I'm so used to seeing him being the central force in a movie, but here he proves he can be in more of a satellite role and still make an impact.

The supporting cast is equally amazing. Matt Damon and Josh Brolin turn in quality work in their roles, but it’s Barry Pepper that really sort of steals the show. He brings a complexity to the character of Lucky Ned that surprised me. Lucky Ned and Mattie Ross have one major scene together, and in those few minutes Pepper is able to take this character, this man who seems like a mythical Old West gangleader, and make him a real man. The way Pepper and Steinfeld play off each other is perfect, and the sequence reinforces the theme of duality which I felt ran throughout the entire film.

Most of the characters present one face to the world and hide their true faces. Whether this is by design — as in the case of Rooster Cogburn and Lucky Ned, who have each adopted a persona to increase their legend — or unconsciously — LaBeouf seems genuinely unaware that he isn’t the brilliant Ranger he believes himself to be — differs from character to character. Only Tom Chaney and Mattie Ross are open about their struggle. Chaney tries to overcome his baser nature but cannot. Ross presents the angelic face of a girl but is steeled with the stone cold conviction of a killer. That she searched for someone with true grit and found such a man is unsurprising; she would recognize it in another as surely as she did in herself. Three stars out of four.

True Grit“: Rated R. Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Jarlath Conroy, Paul Rae, Domhnall Gleeson, Elizabeth Marvel, Roy Lee Jones and Ed Corbin. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen from the novel by Charles Portis. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Original music by Carter Burwell.

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2 Responses to “True Grit (2010)”

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  1. head shots….a film…denim & possibly indian « Haight68Ashbury - January 15, 2011

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