The last time the Coen brothers decided to shoot a remake, the result was 2004's The Ladykillers. I had never actively disliked a film from them before that. Fortunately, they rebounded with the utterly gangbusters No Country for Old Men and have been on a more or less typical streak of greatness ever since.
But, when True Grit was announced I was a little reticent to get excited. For one thing, it was another re-make with the sour taste of The Ladykillers still seeming fresh. For another, John Wayne sucks. He's been in some great films (The Searchers) but his penchant for banking on a one-note persona in roles that reflected his politics and the endearment of his conservative fans for his black hat/white hat films made the Western's of Eastwood (and their moral ambiguity) more attractive to a Godless liberal such as myself. (Wayne famously took Eastwood to task for the less-than-admirable American characters in High Plains Drifter as if American characters in Westerns were always supposed to be noble)
Then, soon after word of the film's announcement, came the news that Jeff Bridges would fill the Rooster Cogburn role. Replacing The Duke with The Dude? There has to be some poetic justice in that; one of the many things the Coens get right with True Grit.
The film hits the ground running as we meet Mattie Ross (a stellar Hailee Steinfled) a smart, wildly assertive, 14-year old girl who's bent on avenging her father after he is senselessly murdered by a drunk outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). After being told that the law can do nothing for her (essentially due to understaffing), she decides to contract a whisky swilling, trigger-happy, reprobate marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to hunt Chaney down and bring him to justice.
At first Cogburn, a local legend for his toughness, Herculean liver and the high mortality rate of his quarry, wants nothing to do with Mattie's cause. But the preternaturally persuasive girl refuses to give up until she ropes Cogburn into the mission, one that becomes all the more urgent when she learns that a cordial Texas Ranger called LeBoeuf (amusingly pronounced "LeBeef") is also on Chaney's trail, anxious to return him to the gallows in Texas for a hefty reward. He wants to throw in with Cogburn to benefit from strength in numbers, as Chaney is as wily as he is vicious. The trio--of course, Mattie insists on accompanying them--make for an unlikely posse.
And it's a good thing we're along for the ride. True Grit is yet another example of the Coen's mastery of genre--though many of their films have a scenically Western vibe this is their first crack at a real Western. A beautifully shot, richly detailed, wonderfully written adaptation of the Charles Portis novel as opposed to the Wayne film, True Grit leavens its pulpy, surprisingly violent story with ample humor--that particular comedic cadence that infuses the Coen's writing and the characters they create. Not to mention their knack for period vernacular that renders the characters so vividly that one effortlessly falls into the flow of the story.
They direct it all with breezy deftness, framed in master cinematographer Roger Deakins' sweepingly gorgeous photography and the ambience of Carter Burwell's fine score. While not as dark as No Country for Old Men (or as certifiably great) True Grit is still a veritable buffet of film craft, narrative pleasures, and well written, endlessly quotable characters in the service of a damn satisfying story.
Bridges is predictably great as Cogbun, imbuing the role with his easy naturalism and burnout charisma that give Cogburn the aura of an affably tough son of a bitch. His gravel-voiced elocution of the Coen's grave and funny dialogue combined with a performance so rich with detail - you can practically smell the whisky seeping from his pores - renders Cogburn as a near mythical portrait of the classic Western anti-hero--another memorable character from an actor whose career is absurdly rife with them. Bridges makes it look easy.
But the real eye opener here is Hailee Steinfeld, who not only fills the weirdly self-assured 14-year old, Mattie, with remarkable poise, but does so with such aplomb that she practically steals the movie. Tearing through her verbose character's lines with the skill of an already talented pro beyond her years, Steinfeld portrays Mattie with a toughness and maturity that is a joy to watch.
Damon is also fine as "LeBeef", the sarcastic, questionably effective Texas Ranger who wears his home state pride on his sleeve, and is more than ready to defend it and his integrity as if they were one in the same. It's not as meaty of a role, but Damon fills it with ample screen presence, charisma and good humor. Holding his own against the wattage of Bridges and Steinfeld is no easy task.
True Grit isn't the best Coen brothers film, but that's relative considering the bulk of their work rarely falls below wonderful. It's not perfect, though I'm hard pressed at the moment to point out any glaring flaws. I'm sure they'll present themselves after I've seen it many more times--which I surely will.
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