True Grit (2010) / Western-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images
Running time: 110 min.
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (Based on the novel by Charles Portis)
Review published February 21, 2011
Although they have frequently employed Western styles, True Grit is the Coen Brothers' (A Serious Man, Burn After Reading) first attempt at the true Western genre, quite traditional in its adaptation of the classic Charles Portis story, a novel originally published in the "Saturday Evening Post" in 1968, more in the vein of its creation than the comedy, thrills, and snark we've come to associate with their style. However, given the well-played banter, the strong female lead, and many other comical character touches, this is still an excellent example of their work, and though, if you didn't know they directed and wrote this film, you might not guess it as a Coen Brothers work, those looking for their signatures will still find them, albeit only as complementary to Portis's original style.
Set in the Old West of the 1870s, Hailee Steinfeld (Summer Camp) plays 14-year-old Mattie Ross, out to avenge the cold-blooded killing of her father by a drifter named Tom Chaney (Brolin, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), who has since skipped their Arkansas town to head to Indian territory (presently known as Oklahoma), where the law has no say. Her only hope for justice is to hire out a U.S. marshal willing to take the task and nab Chaney, and Mattie decides, due to his 'true grit', on Ruben 'Rooster' Cogburn (Bridges, Tron Legacy), a feisty old one-eyed gunman who is quicker on the trigger (and on the liquor) than he is on the mental uptake. Also dovetailing into her interests is a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Damon, Bourne Ultimatum), who has been trying, mostly in vain thus far, to bring the elusive Chaney to justice for other transgressions.
Jeff Bridges' performance is the lynchpin of this film, and he delivers every bit of the crusty nuance required to bring Cogburn to life. Western fans certainly know that Cogburn had been previously played to great effect by John Wayne in one of his most memorable roles, and the one he won an Oscar as Best Actor for, and even made a sequel to, so commend Bridges for not trying to out-Duke the Duke and making the role his own. An excellent supporting cast that includes Damon, Brolin, and Pepper (Casino Jack) also delivers quite well. But it's young Hallie Steinfeld that emerges, quite improbably, as the standout performance in a role that, at first glance, doesn't require much more than to be a young woman seeking law and order. In an era where teenage girls are either relegated to dumb-but-cute socialites or objects of some other teenage boy's (and sometimes older man's) desires, the character of Mattie Ross not only goes against the conventional grain by being anything but those things, but also is infused with riveting determination and conviction by Steinfeld's captivating portrayal.
The Coen Brothers seem to make two kinds of films in terms of quality: great films, and good (and some not-as-good) films with great moments. True Grit treads the line between these two kinds for some time, and to some viewers, particularly to those with a soft spot for Westerns, the former classification will win out. However, this film lacks the tight composition of Blood Simple, the transcendence of No Country for Old Men, or even the uniqueness of Fargo. It's a play on convention by embracing the conventional, almost re-revisionist in its approach by going to the roots of the Western tales rather than reinventing them. However, by so doing, the Coens knowingly made a decision to stick to their story without razzle-dazzle, convinced of its power to compel without need for gimmicks and underlying social commentary. They set out to make a Western, pure and simple, and they achieve it as if they've done it before.
But that's also the double-edged sword, as an old-fashioned tale is still an old-fashioned tale, and it's perhaps more meaningful to those who enjoy how a yarn is spun much more so than those looking to find modern relevance. As such, it isn't a film where the Coens strive to connect with audiences in a meaningful way, but it's more of an homage to a book they thoroughly enjoy, wanting the tale to be told, in as much as can be done in a film, the way they think it was meant to. But this is also a Coen Brothers film, which means that viewers will continuously be looking for something they will never find from the material, and may come away underwhelmed when they come away empty-handed. Which is a shame, because a rich classical story deserves to be heard, regardless of those who tell it, without the need to dissect it through eyes scanning perpetually for personal meaning to themselves rather than the meaning to the characters on the screen.
And yet, for all of its wealth in terms of performances, cinematography, scoring, and period, the one inescapable quality lacking that keeps True Grit a good film with great moments, rather than a purely great one, is the muted emotional punch. As characters live, die, or lay in mortal peril, we sense the danger mentally rather than emotionally, and without that element -- when the characters are more fun to watch than to feel empathy with -- we lose that essential power to the story. True Grit is a movie where we appreciate the details of the characters' journey more than we feel we're on that journey along with them. It's certainly gritty, and just as certainly witty, but not quite thoroughly gripping. It's a beautiful, well constructed film appreciated more for the craft of the art than for the art of the craft.
©2011 Vince Leo