“The wicked flee when none pursueth.”
A more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel than the original 1969 Western starring John Wayne, the Coen brothers’ True Grit sees them reunite with actor Jeff Bridges for the first time since The Big Lebowski. Featuring great performances, crafty direction and a winning mix of dark comedy and action, this latest creation from the most well-known Minnesotan brothers is an enjoyable film. Yet, there is something strangely missing and I feel a faint sense of disappointment that I didn’t like it more.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays the unshakable Mattie Ross, a wickedly intelligent and sassy 14-yr old woman who has just seen her father murdered by small-time outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) in 1870′s Arkansas. Seeking retribution, she hires the grizzled but crude US Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges) to hunt him down. Much to his chagrin, she makes it a condition that she must tag along. They join force with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who wants to bring Chaney back to Texas for his own reasons.
As you would expect from a film written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, there is plenty of dark humor in True Grit and the laughs are extracted naturally out of the numerous opportunities that the characters and situations provide. The cartoonish and contraction-free dialogue is taken right off Portis’ prose and is brilliantly delivered by the actors. The somewhat unexpected reverence to the classical western genre lends the movie a confident, unhurried pacing as well as an omnipresent possibility of death. Long-time Coen collaborator Roger Deakins did excellent work with the cinematography as shown by the gorgeous opening sequence which slowly fades into the body of a man laying in the middle of a dark street and lit only by candle light.
“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God”
Being a Coen movie, True Grit rest almost entirely on its wonderfully peculiar characters rather than set action pieces. Cogburn is a fat, one-eyed man who has a reputation for “true grit” and is known for shooting first and sorting out the dead bodies later, making him the ideal candidate for Mattie. Jeff Bridges is perfectly cast as the gruff and whimsical old man who predictably softens to the unwavering young woman as the story unfolds. While his accented mumbling and growling is sometimes indiscernible, he benefits from having most of the funniest lines. Matt Damon is solid as the pompous yet likable buffoon LaBoeuf, a comically cocky and overly self-infatuated sidekick who is on the receiving end of nearly every jokes when he is around, while Barry Pepper leaves a mark as the miscreant Lucky Ned Pepper.
However, the real star of the show is the 14-yr old Steinfeld who brings a quick witted intelligence and intense pluckiness to Mattie while still displaying the naivety a fourteen year old should. Mattie’s life has caused her to mature well beyond her age and Steinfeld captures her strong unyielding personality without ever appearing insufferable. Although it is a somewhat one-note performance, it is tough to see anyone else being able to play this part so convincingly, and hold her own against a stellar cast of veteran actors around her.
So why do I feel this slight tinge of disappointment? Maybe it’s because True Grit doesn’t feel much like a Coen brothers movie at all. Indeed, there is nothing new brought to the table and it may well be the most conventional and crowd-pleasing film of their career. While one can still note some of their peculiarities here and there — a man on horseback disguised as a bear mumbling incoherently, a low-life making animal noises– one could easily forget who directed this throwback of westerns past.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfield is a revelation in this elegant and well-crafted western but this strangely straightforward film may leave fans of the Coen brothers somewhat wanting.
The Coen brothers can rarely do wrong by me. I can expect them to bring an innovative twist to every one of their tales with a pristinely written screenplay, and witty dialogue. Their updated version of True Grit is no exception, but I was still left feeling a little unsettled. I didn’t walk away completely satisfied by what I had just witnessed. From what I was provided with, I don’t believe it could have been done much better. But in the end, it felt incomplete, and might I say, anticlimactic.
True Grit is a “true” western tale of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who sets out to bring vengeance to Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father. She is unable to do it on her own, so she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a rugged U.S. Marshal, to help her track down Chaney and bring him back to town to be hung. Mattie is a no nonsense sort of girl that insists in joining Cogburn on the escapade. In somewhat of a competition they are joined by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger, in their search for Chaney. LaBoeuf has other intentions to bring Chaney back to Texas where he is wanted for another crime, and a reward will be given if he brings him back. Along the way, they encounter many challenges that make their trip quite difficult, and the film chronicles that journey.
The film portrays the western genre well. Much of that is attributed to the fact that it already was a genre classic. But for a genre that is all but dead, the film represents that sentimental feeling quite well. It captures the rawness that the original lacked, and that the Coen brothers know so well. It begins a little slow, and at times I began to lose interest. The setting was somewhat drab, lacking a beautiful landscape as so many westerns before have displayed. But that is the mood of the film, and it’s hard to really criticize it. I am a fan of capturing snowy environments, and the film does this well. The Coen’s seem to have a vision for everything they do, and they stay extremely true to that. I respect that aspect of filmmaking, and that is why I will continue seeing their films till the end of time.
Often, I feel as though westerns romanticize violence. There becomes a certain a sense that gunfights should happen in a certain, overly dramatized fashion. With this film, I was under the impression that the Coen’s beg to differ. They presented everything as one might see as; pardon the pun, true to life with the grittiness of death and injury. Maybe that is part of the problem in why the film didn’t quite deliver. Maybe the truth just doesn’t hold excitement in the same way that a more romanticized film might. Frankly, I felt like its violence was as borderline R-rating as a PG-13 film gets. But I like that about the film. I like that about the Coen’s.
Steinfeld carries the film well despite being an unknown young actress before the film. She holds her own among the likes of Bridges and Damon, who are equally as good. The characters are what make the film, so their casting was vitally important to the success. In fact, the originally was frankly boring, and the acting…well let’s just say that I think John Wayne is overrated. Bridges, Damon, Steinfeld, and even Brolin, despite being in very little of the film, were deeply rich in tone. I have nothing bad to say about their performances, only that their characters weren’t developed properly. But that has more to do with the story, rather than filmmaking or acting flaws. Although the acting was good, it was rather expected, and in my opinion shouldn’t warrant Oscar nominations, with the exception of Bridges who benefits from a weak lead actor field this year. However, my opinions don’t matter. There is a more than average chance that the film will score more than one acting nomination come time to cast the ballots. It should be noted that I think Steinfeld belongs in the leading actress category, but from the sounds of it, they are pushing her for the supporting category.
With how much hype the film has received, I think my expectations were high, and overall, it just didn’t live up to them. You can’t win them all. So I’m okay with that. It was worth seeing, don’t get me wrong. If you are on the fence, deciding whether or not to go see the film, I would suggest seeing it at some point in time, especially if you are a fan of the western. If you are a fan of any of the actors, I think you will appreciate their work, and it is a nice addition to the Coen’s impressive catalog. Over time, I think the film will hold up. Even if it isn’t a top ten film, in my opinion, it will probably manage to avoid getting lost in the fray of 2010 films. Maybe even more so than films that I found within my top ten. It is somewhat novel even in the midst of its imperfections, and I must give it credit for that. And who knows, maybe over time, it will grow on me. I guess only time will tell.
Published: December 27, 2010
Notes: Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images, 110 minutes.
Did you feel the same way? What are your thoughts? How does the film stand up to other westerns and Coen brother films?