True Grit (2010, Paramount Pictures)
A tough U.S. Marshal helps a stubborn young woman track down her father’s murderer.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Executive producers Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Scott Rudin and Steven Spielberg.
Coen Brothers movies are an exercise in immersion therapy. They take on unconventional and sometimes cliche genres, subject matter and periods that as many people love as they do hate. Yet afterward, you always come out the better for experiencing it. Their retelling of a Charles Portis novel most identified with John Wayne is a bold, authentic masterpiece. And, true to Coen form, True Grit was every bit as fun as it was dark.
Told from the perspective of Mattie Ross, a 14-year old girl wise beyond her years sent to settle the affairs of her murdered father, True Grit opens with a scene so refreshing, so textured that you are immediately swept into the mid-19th century western United States and love every moment of it. Westerns are tricky. Cliches are around every corner and even one can sabotage the movie. The Coen brothers navigate through this world in True Grit relying on what makes their period pieces outshine most: the script. Every character becomes a celluloid hero delivering lines so poetic you hang onto every beat of every word.
While Jeff Bridges earns an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the drunken, broken old US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, it’s Hailee Steinfeld who soars in True Grit as Mattie Ross. Child actors often suffer cruel fates in “grown up” movies. Too many producers think it’s cute and edgy to treat them like little puppets spitting out curse words for comedic punctuation and usually falling woefully flat (I’m looking at you, Kick-Ass). Not so with True Grit. Steinfeld’s Mattie proves herself every bit a worthy foil to Bridges’ Cogburn. She plays the role with no varnish on her words, as they say, and delivers a performance big enough to run with Bridges and Matt Damon, who plays the smarmy Texas Ranger LaBoeuf.
To get a sense of how strong the Coens’ direction is, consider this: the dialogue in one of the climactic scenes of True Grit remains unchanged from the 1969 version to the 2010 version. The same exact lines. Where the John Wayne scene plays more like an adventure movie (I say that with no criticism), the Jeff Bridges-led scene resonates with more depth, darkness and intensity. There are no heroes on horseback in the Coens’ True Grit and I love it for that.
Wall to wall, True Grit is an entertaining story that captivates with every scene. Bit players shine as minor characters who turn even minor scenes into captivating miniature stories. Barry Pepper as outlaw Ned Pepper delivers one of the most memorable moments in True Grit thanks to a perfect marriage of his acting, the Coens’ dialogue and cinematographer Roger Deakins composition. Credit the Coens for taking the western to places only they can take it. Not sure it’s necessarily an Oscar-caliber film, but it is unquestionably one of the most fun nominees in the bunch.
***-1/2 stars (out of 5).