Friday, December 31, 2010

643 - True Grit (2010) review

The Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” isn’t a remake of the 1969 Western that won John Wayne an Oscar, but an incredible work of its own based off the same source material. Wayne was a Movie Star, arguably the greatest to ever live, and that film was His and His alone. Jeff Bridges is as fine a screen actor as has ever been seen, and he thus is but part of a wonderful cinematic tapestry of humor and violence. After the Coens insufferably myopic 2009 film “A Serious Man,” this is a readily accessible work, in effect a sort of rebuke, however unintentional, to the idea that small, frustrating independent movies are in any way superior to excellent mainstream pictures.

The real star of the film is 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who gives a singularly sharp performance as Mattie Ross. Mattie is defined by laser-like focus and a keen intellect, qualities that Steinfeld realizes with clarity and firm presence, a potentially star-making turn.

Her Mattie has arrived in town to collect her father’s body, the elder Ross gunned down by half-witted thug Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She asks the sheriff about the Marshals she can hire to track Cheney down: one’s a helluva tracker, another an upstanding lawman. Then there’s Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), the meanest and certainly the drunkest. It might not come up often, but one’s choice in a situation like that one speaks volumes about their character.

Bridges refuses to sentimentalize Cogburn, a filthy, cantankerous, one-eyed drunk. Wayne, great as he was, rarely played a character so much as variants of his own magnetic personality. But this incarnation of Cogburn is realized as a complex man, a presence whose status as a lush belies a cunning intuition for violent work. The pair are joined by LeBeouf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who’s a crack shot but apparently a poor investigator, as he’s been evaded by Chaney for months. LeBeouf represents a complication for Mattie, who wants to see her father’s murderer punished for his crimes in their native Arkansas rather than Texas, but also helps even the odds, as Chaney has taken up with a gang of outlaws destined to meet Cogburn in a famed cinematic charge.

The Coens are renowned for their films’ dialogue, which ranges from the bleakly amusing to electrically playful. But here they faithfully transmute from the pages of Charles Portis’ novel, their cast and technique filling the witty dialogue with liveliness and vigor. Whereas the 1969 incarnation was largely forgettable outside of Wayne’s presence, it’s a delight to watch these actors, from the stars to small roles, haggle with and harangue one another. The plot’s nothing special, serving as a vehicle to allow us to watch these characters interact.

Photographed by the Coens longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film depicts a West that’s often gorgeous in its desolation, littered with rotting bodies and elements of nature nearly as insidious as the men being pursued. Even as “True Grit” proves revelatory as proof that the Coens can flawlessly craft a mainstream film whilst lacing it with their signature motifs. Westerns often emphasize the “True Grit” emphasis the harshness of the 1800’s landscape, but the severity often seen here imbues a sense of melancholy that enriches the humor and quick, brutal moments of gunfire. This is a fantastic picture, and if the Coens can do this well in the mainstream, I’d just as soon see them leave the high-budget art film realm behind.

4.5 out of 5

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