Sunday, December 26, 2010

True Grit (2010): A Review


I come into True Grit, the latest film from the Brothers Coen, completely open and slightly concerned. Regular readers may know that of all current filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen rank at the bottom of my list of directors I think are good. 

This is a great source of criticism from those in my circle who worship them, fans whom I lovingly call Coen-Heads. On the positive side, I have never seen the 1968 John Wayne version of Charles Portis' novel, so I go into it without any preconceptions about how it matches the original.

The brothers have created a fine Western that holds to some of the traditions of the genre while making it more in tune with Twenty-First Century viewing sensibilities.

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) begins a pursuit of Tom Chaney, her father's murderer. She goes to collect her father's remains and finds a Marshall to help her track down Chaney and bring him to justice. That Marshall is Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a fat, one-eyed drunk with a reputation for ruthlessness. He wants nothing to do with this child, but she is persistent, eventually getting him on her side.

Into the mix is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who has also been pursuing Chaney. He and Cogburn believe it is best to leave this work to them, but Mattie will not be denied. They begin the pursuit, and after fighting the Lucky Pepper Gang of which Chaney is part of, LaBoeuf separates from Cogburn and Mattie. However, Mattie finds Chaney (Josh Brolin) almost by accident, and Chaney takes her prisoner with Cogburn in mad pursuit. Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, in one of film's curious coincidences), who has a history with Cogburn, is not pleased how things have turned out, and now him and the three other members of the gang leave Chaney to guard Mattie while they face off with Cogburn in a climatic joust. In the end, we find that a team working together is able to defeat evil.

Goals accomplished, with some sacrifices, there is a haunting denouement to True Grit, where an adult Maggie's voice-over tells us, in her distinct voice, how things did end up.

There is something unique in the Coen Brother's version of True Grit: unlike No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man, this movie actually has an ending. I suspect that may be because they weren't working from an original script. From what I've seen, they have made a very straight, almost traditional Western.

There are moments of dark Coen humor (for example, when three men early in the film are hanged) and the Coen flashes of violence (particularly when Rooster and Mattie come upon a cabin where the outlaws are headed). However, there is no distinct Coen wackiness: Rooster isn't The Dude or the schmuck from A Serious Man. He is a drunk (and like most drunks in film, has a funny moment where he tries to show how he's still sharp in spite of his inebriation), but he is also a deadly serious character. LaBoeuf is a little more comedic, with his excessive pride in the actions of Texas Rangers, but he can also rise to the occasion.

Both Bridges and Damon give very strong performances both individually where they play off each other, almost as a comedy team mixed with an action duo. Damon mostly remains in an understated comedy role, where LaBoeuf clearly isn't in on the joke that neither Cogburn or Mattie take him too seriously until they see that in spite of his bragging, he actually has some skills. Bridges' Cogburn is similar to Bad Blake from Crazy Heart except that here, he isn't looking for or interested in any kind of redemption, only in getting his man. He gives Rooster a gruffness that belies his intensity. When he faces off against the Pepper Gang, he charges in with an impact that makes it an extremely exciting sequence.

As good as Bridges and Damon are, the heart of the film is Steinfeld. Her Mattie is a strong, direct girl who states her case with a determined and straightforward manner befitting a highly intelligent woman who knows she is always right but doesn't brag about it. She is reminiscent of a young Jodie Foster in how her take on Mattie is: that of a girl who will brook no opposition in her quest for justice, not revenge. She doesn't seek to kill Chaney, but to bring him to trial.

It is almost as if she were far more mature than either Cogburn or LaBoeuf, but when she is taken by Chaney and has to be rescued, she is no different than any fourteen-year-old girl who is terrified and knows she cannot escape unaided. Her resolve and determination make me wonder that, while she hired Rooster for his tenacity, it is she who has True Grit. It is both the character of Mattie and Steinfeld's performance that holds True Grit together into a strong, intelligent, and entertaining film.

Compliments must be handed out to Roger Deakins' beautiful cinematography. He creates a landscape that is both sparse and beautiful, which are reminiscent of Westerns from their 30's and 50's heyday. The interiors (as when Cogburn gives court testimony early in the film) and exteriors (for example, the haunting final shot of an adult Mattie walking away with her back to us) are rendered with true visual elan.

Another highlight is Carter Burwell's score, which blends seamlessly traditional hymns with his own work. I started singing softly to myself What A Friend We Have In Jesus when it is used near the end of True Grit, and these old-time religion songs lend a greater authenticity to the film, as if it came not just from a film easily made by a John Ford or Howard Hawks, but from the actual time period.

It's an odd criticism to point out the Coen's dialogue. It was well-written, and it may have come straight from the Curtis novel, but it almost sounded all too grand to be spoken by relatively simple folk. I've never heard anyone, especially a fourteen-year-old girl, refer to people as a "congress of louts". I can believe Mattie is extremely educated, but Cogburn and LaBoeuf don't strike me as having had a great deal of schoolin', so their elevated speaking (LaBoeuf tells them, "Our engagement is terminated", a rather grandiose way of saying, "We're done") strikes an odd tone.

I don't object to it; on the contrary, I think quite well of it. It just seemed more akin to a Bernard Shaw adaptation than a Western. Again, this is a minor complaint, and not even that, just a curiosity.

In Shanghai Express, Marlene Dietrich said the classic line, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lilly". In the same way, it takes more than one film to change my views on the Coens. True Grit doesn't strike me as a true Coen Brothers film, since their no real offbeat humor running through it, and as I stated, the film actually has an ending .

Fill your hands, you son of a bitch: I found a Coen Brothers film I actually liked!

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