Wednesday, January 19, 2011

True Grit

True Grit:  B+

Not on the same playing field as Coen brothers' classics like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, or (my personal favorite) Miller's Crossing, True Grit is still Triple A worthy with strong performances, some arch hilarity, and a couple of scenes of exquisitely morbid violence. Based on a novel I have never read and a remake of an old John Wayne film I've never seen, True Grit concerns itself with what some call vengeance and others justice, the likes of which Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) seeks against Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father.  She enlists the help of US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the unwanted help of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).  The hunt commences.  

The focus of the film remains on Mattie despite what previews might suggest; she bookends the film as a grown-up telling of a very precise time in her life.  She's the spiritual life of the film, a young woman who refuses to acquiesce to a man's world and who willingly, defiantly demands respect from the men who initially belittle and condescend to her.  Steinfield does an excellent job portraying the stubborn young woman whose iron-clad desire to see her father’s killer brought in, dead or alive, reflects her pragmatic belief in justice and her path towards feminist empowerment.  We never quite learn how she came to such conviction; the journey she takes during the course of the film only strengthens her, but she’d already shown a rich sense of empowerment when the film begins.  Early scenes where she challenges a local businessman for control of the money he owed her father lay the groundwork for the film’s sense of humor and Mattie’s rectitude.

Cogburn alternates between drunkard prone to fits of braggadocio (the scene where he attempts to shoot biscuits out of the air verges on overkill) and cunningly lethal lawman, such as a cabin shootout where he rescues LaBouef.  Bridges takes what could have been a complete caricature (portly, one-eyed alcoholic lawman) and turns him into an artful dodger with a weakness for the bottle and a burgeoning respect for his client.  Just as good a performance as last year’s Oscar-winning Crazy Heart, Bridges provides True Grit with its most unpredictable asset since you’re never quite sure what to make of Rooster; think of the Dude mixed with Dirty Harry and you have an idea of the direction Bridges takes Rooster.

Occasionally, the actors seem to choke on the mealy language and it plays like they have marbles stuck in their mouths.  Plus, the vernacular does take some getting use to - contractions are rarely uttered, and it was disconcerting to this 21st century viewer.  And after Mattie encounters Tom Chaney, the film becomes rushed and the quickened pace is slightly jarring after such a languid, methodical build-up.  However, the last two gripes I might just have to attribute to the source material.

No matter its failings, True Grit is a Coen Brothers film; you owe it to yourself to get to a theater and judge its merits.