True Grit – 3 Buckets
If last year’s A Serious Man was Joel and Ethan Coen’s crowning achievement in personalism, then True Grit is their crowning achievement in formalism. This is as tried and true as westerns come — an expertly crafted, old-fashioned yarn that shares Charles Portis’ source novel with the 1969 film that won John Wayne an Oscar. (It should be noted, however, that the Coens do not consider this a remake and they claim to have not seen the original since childhood.) Your milage with the film will ultimately depend on your love of the genre in the classical sense — if you think there’s nothing better than a no-frills western, then True Grit may quickly ascend to the top of your list of favorite films. I personally prefer a spicier story than the one on display here, but nonetheless found myself wholly engaged because of the Coens’ incessantly apparent mastery of the art of filmmaking.
Set in Arkansas and Oklahoma in the late 19th Century, True Grit follows 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) as she attempts to avenge her father’s drunken killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Despite her young age, Mattie is clearly the new head of her household — feisty, smart, and determined. To track Chaney down in the Indian Territory, where he has fled to avoid capture, she hires another drunken man, U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, offering a fresh take on the John Wayne role). Rooster may have a penchant for the bottle, but he proves the optimal choice for Mattie because of his merciless reputation — he has no reservations about killing men to get the job done, which is exactly what she wants. After a short struggle over the girl’s insistence upon joining him on the dangerous pursuit, inherited old pistol in tow, the two set off on horseback. Also along for the ride is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a goofy Texas Ranger who is also after Chaney for the murder of his state’s senator.
The only person receiving more awards buzz than the Coens for their work on True Grit is young Hailee Steinfeld. At no point in the film is difficult to believe that a 14-year-old could keep up with two professional bounty hunters on a rugged journey, and that is not an accomplishment just any child actor could achieve. Steinfeld delivers a terrific, committed performance, selling the larger-than-life Mattie Ross well. It is difficult to tell whether she will become more than a one-hit wonder, however, as Mattie is a very distinctive character whose theatrical self-confidence is conducive to a “drama kid”-style performance. It also doesn’t hurt that she was able to share the screen with Bridges and Damon, both of whom disappear into their roles with a seeming effortless that raises the bar for the rest of the cast. Whatever her future, however, Steinfeld has made a strong impression in contemporary cinema and may very well win this year’s Oscar.
But I just keep coming back to those Coen Brothers, who give the movie such a polish that balances all the rich elements so perfectly. They deftly combine Steinfeld’s dramatic force with Damon and Bridges’ lightly comic interplay with Roger Deakins’ trustily elegiac cinematography with Carter Burwell’s traditional score with every other wonderful element… and it all fits. In an era of messy movies that look to bombard the viewer in every which way, it is nice to see masters like the Coens and Black Swan’s Darren Aronofsky show the power of precision.
Alas, we reach the obvious question: why do I not think True Grit is a masterpiece, given all the praise I have just lathered upon it? As I said in the first paragraph, the film is ultimately a conventional western and this formula just doesn’t do it for me. No doubt, the Coens have taken to the material and given it a soul. But for a motion picture to receive my highest marks, I believe that it must not only be great by way of execution, but also by way of nature. Stripped down, True Grit is the same superiorly acted, superiorly constructed western people saw 60, 70, 80 years ago. That is not to say that it wasn’t worth making–it is lovely and entertaining for what it is, and those who can’t get enough of this type of film will cherish it. In fact, viewers are better off when they can take in a good variety of films, from the experimentally original to the time-tested. As far as holiday entertainments for the family go, this one is right at the top of the list. The fact that it is well worth seeing is all that should matter.
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True Grit (2010, USA). Produced by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, David Ellison, Megan Ellison, Robert Graf, Scott Rudin, Robert Schwake, and Steven Spielberg. Directed and written for the screen by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis. Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper. Distributed by Paramount Pictures. Rated PG-13, with a running time of 110 minutes.