TRUE GRIT (2010)
Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
MPAA Rating: (for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images)
Running Time: 1:50
Release Date: 12/22/10
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 21, 2010
The focus of reaction to True Grit, whether it's the 1969 film or this one written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, will inevitably rest with its heavy-drinkin', hard-talkin', mostly straight-shootin', one-eyed U.S. Marshall Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn. He is, until his mandatory transformation in the eyes of the story's protagonist and hence our own, the antithesis of the typical Western hero—not driven by justice or the right and proper way of things but by the chance to earn money and, of seemingly greater importance, confiscate some whiskey from the bad guys.
He has "true grit," as Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the young girl who hires Rooster to help her capture the man who killed her father (It's an important distinction, as opposed to hiring him to do the arresting himself) calls it, and it becomes clear early on that the second part of that phrase is meant in every way to signify a double meaning. Yes, he does show courage and resolve by the end, but until then, he is abrasive and coarse and as unsympathetic as a stone to the concerns of others.
John Wayne played the role in the first incarnation with as much gusto and bravura as he could muster, and Jeff Bridges takes over here, portraying Rooster as a much broader caricature. He takes the harder, primary gist of "grit" and imbues it into his voice—a gravelly, rambling mutter that suggests he has better things to consider right now but thank you very much and please remove yourself from his presence.
The Coens, adapting Charles Portis' novel, make the most out the early scenes, establishing an elegiac tone with a prologue that tells the story of Mattie's father's murder at the hands of the cowardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) as the camera slowly pans in on his lifeless body lying on the ground as a light snow begins to fall. After that, though, the film sheds its mourning garb, as Mattie encounters an undertaker whose idea of compassion is insisting she may kiss her father's corpse if she likes and witnesses a public hanging during which one of the condemned tearfully repents, another wishes he had killed the right man instead, and the third, a Native-American, can't even get a sentence out before the hood is unceremoniously shoved over his head.
The most important scene for determining Mattie's character is her encounter with a stable owner (Dakin Matthews) whom she believes owes her family some money. Throwing figures back and forth—she incorporating on-the-fly logical leaps and threatens legal action while he poses a "final" offer at least three times—the two bandy words until it becomes crystalline that Mattie is as determined as a person can be. Steinfeld's focused, unwavering performance is the backbone of these opening scenes.
Rooster's big moment is in the courtroom, where he attempts to assert his rightness of a recent police action that left a man dead, shot by Cogburn, apparently, while preparing food. He plays dumb until it's clear the lawyer has done his homework, and then Rooster gets down business—joking (laughing, almost in a surprised way, at his own sense of humor), defensive, and, ultimately, a bit feeble as the attorney undoes him.
Mattie hires Rooster to hunt down Chaney, who has escaped into Indian terroitory and taken up with a man Cogburn has been chasing for a long time "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), hunting Chaney for another matter and reward, tags along against Mattie's disapproval. It's vitally important to her that Chaney face justice for her father's death.
Just like the original film, once the trio head on their way, the story is slight. The bantering between Rooster and LaBoeuf and Cogburn's unique ways and past (He drones stories of his past to Mattie, as though he hasn't had anyone new to tell them to for years) overshadow Mattie. The characters stay locked in their respective places as they amble in the footsteps of Chaney and Pepper, happening upon people strange (a man in a bearskin coat who collects the teeth of dead men), sights mysterious (a man hung from the highest branch of a tree), and events violent (In the interior of a cabin, two criminals show how little honor there is between them, while a bit later outside, there's a shoot-out). Then it becomes about Rooster, making a minor shift from a likeable drunkard to a likeable hero, his surrogate-father relationship to Mattie left unspoken and, except for a late-night ride with her in his arms, unexplored.Even so, the Coens have a way with the little oddities, and their command of the straightforward, formal language, the imposing isolation of the setting (aided much by Roger Deakins' bare cinematography), and the strong if unfulfilled setup of the central characters is keen. True Grit, nearly on par with the original film, is a reliable, if insubstantial, genre piece.
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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