Saturday, January 15, 2011

True Grit ***

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin
Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Hailee Steinfeld

The Coen brothers, beacons of sophisticatedly dark humor and bleak existentialism deliver a no-frills, straightforward genre pic with True Grit, a new film adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis.
Grit centers on the story of Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) a fourteen year old girl who sets on the mission to avenge her father's dead at the hand of outlaw Tom Chaney (Brolin).
Based on recommendations around town she hires U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) as her personal tracker.
She sets off into dangerous Indian territory with Cogburn and Texas Ranger La Beouf (Damon9 who's also after Chaney.
This sets the stage for what can only be called an old fashioned Western. The film offers nothing new (except maybe some optimism from the Coens) but it's such a well told story that you can't help but think this is what fireside tales of old must've been imagined like.
The brothers show technical mastery and their every choice seems perfect just as it is. Once more teaming up with the extraordinary cinematographer Roger Deakins, they create a Wild West that's as dreamlike as it's realistic.
Deakins' camera indulges itself with vistas that go as far as the eye can see and strange camera angles that work despite their affectedness.
But fear not, this doesn't mean the film is completely devoid of the Coens' touches. Now and then they let their surrealistic touches go away with them and expertly weave them into the larger, more mainstream scheme of the plot.
In one of the film's most haunting scenes we see a bear riding a horse during a storm (you'll have to see this to believe it) and during the film's climax the Coens seem to have been possessed by the spirit of John Ford in a thrilling shootout.
Perhaps what makes the film feel more Coen-like are the performances. Bridges is outstanding as Cogburn, this man must be the only actor who can don an eye patch, look completely disheveled, deliver his lines with a mumble and still make it seem like the most natural thing on the planet.
Watch him epitomize coolness, yes, despite the eye patch, when everytime he moves, his coat flows and evokes a superhero's cape.
Damon and Brolin don't have much to do but they are steady supporting performers. Brolin is particularly good in the few scenes he has, completely owning the cowardly viciousness of Chaney.
Steinfeld gives a performance that's wiser beyond her years (this is her screen debut!) and she holds up beautifully against Bridges. She develops a lovely chemistry with him and by film's end, this becomes so deep that it even transcends the boundaries of different actors playing the same role (Elizabeth Marvel plays an older Mattie and it feels as if it's Steinfeld with makeup on).
True Grit may not be particularly profound in the way the Coens have used us to, it could be said in fact that if this wasn't directed by them it would surely seem more majestic.
But as an exercise in how to make a movie in the classic studio way, it feels just fine, it's also way more entertaining that it has any right to be. With the Coens flourish for quirky dialogs and melancholy it's refreshing to see how they can inject some new blood into a genre that's been pronounced dead more times than any other.


Luke said...

Love your allusion to Elizabeth Marvel feeling like Hailee Steinfeld with makeup! That totally describes how I felt about that transition. Though the movie wasn't outstanding or anything, it was such a great story and the two leads (Bridges and Steinfeld) really did play well off of each other - remarkable, considering their vast age difference!

M. Hufstader said...

Great review! I agree that True Grit was entertaining, but as a Coen Brothers film leaves you kind of waiting for that Coen Brothers shebang. Nonetheless, I do think the best part of this movie was the performances, and if anything I would've liked to see more Brolin, because he's a surprisingly good actor and his character got pretty minimal screen time, especially since he was such an important character.

Jose said...

Luke: thank you! Their chemistry was great indeed. I think this movie was more fun than almost any other "big" film playing this season.

M. Hufstader: thank you! Me too! Brolin was incredible even in such few scenes, more would've been great!

Anonymous said...

And the thing is Brolin actually makes his character sympathetic even in those few scenes, making Chaney an underdog instead of a full-on villain. I hope the Coens give him a bigger movie.