Tuesday, December 28, 2010

True Grit (2010)

I have never seen the 1969 True Grit, in which John Wayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of US Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn, a surly, inebriated lawman who's hired by the young Mattie Ross to find her father's killer. But from what I've heard about it, its the corn-pone, sentimental Western that Hollywood was cranking out in those days, with country star Glen Campbell playing the role of Texas Ranger La Beouf and singing the title song. Its not the kind of film you'd expect the Coen Brothers to remake.
Instead, they chose to stick closer to Charles Portis' novel than the movie. The story is still the same: 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) comes to Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to convince him to join her in hunting down her father's killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). La Beouf (Matt Damon) is also looking for Chaney, and figures that he's probably riding with Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang. The uneasy alliance go out into Indian Territory to find them, with plenty of adventure to follow.
Tonally, the film doesn't feel out of place in the Coen's oeuvre. It features their usual blend of quirky characters and dark humor, with gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Roger Deakins. Plus, several of their films have felt like they were inspired by Westerns (No Country for Old Men, for example), so to see them do a straight Western is interesting. However, True Grit doesn't feel as immediate as many of their more recent films. Its very good, don't get me wrong, but it just doesn't have the sense of Coen mischief that, say, A Serious Man or The Man Who Wasn't There had. In fact, there's a certain sentimentality that's been rare in the Coen filmography, which has been marked by a dark theme of meaninglessness, particularly meaningless violence (and though that's lightly here, its merely a footnote). This doesn't necessarily make True Grit a bad film; its a great film, but for a Coens' film, it just feels...off.
The reunion of Jeff Bridges and the Coens is plenty funny, but its no The Big Lebowski. Damon's La Beouf is almost pedophilic, as he shameless flirts with a 14-year-old girl. Though, it should be noted that Ross is no ordinary 14-year-old. She's confident, strong-willed, and all-business, wise beyond her years but still with a lot of maturing to go. And in the hands of Hailee Steinfeld, she's a wonder to behold, and Steinfeld plays her with the kind of serious acting chops that one usually doesn't expect from a child star. Its a bravura (lead) performance from a future star. And Ross is a terrific example of something the Coens don't often get praise for: they can create some terrific roles for actresses. Just look at Marge Gunderson in Fargo for proof.
All in all, True Grit is an excellent film, and certainly one of the best Westerns of the last few years. But its hard to watch it and not wish it had been something more.

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