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.  


  1. Sounds good. I'll definitely have to put that on our "must see" list.

  2. Nice synopsis. I agree with your assessment of Bridges - great interpretation, and a performance as good as anything I've seen with him. You don't mention Damon and I am wondering what you thought. I was utterly disappointed with him. I thought 90% of the movie's humor revolved around his character. And despite great dialogue, he just fell flat. I thought he just couldn't handle the vernacular+accent, it seemed like he was concentrating on getting the words out every time he spoke and not necessarily on the delivery. And then on top of that vernacular and accent, he has to pretend like half his tongue has been cut off... just too much. But I still would have given this an A- as a whole, you movie bloggers are so harsh.

  3. I actually enjoyed Damon. I think the difficulty of the performance might have been due to the characterization Charles Portis created in his novel. LaBouef had to come across as a bit of a fop and lightweight when compared with Rooster, and I thought Damon did well playing at the humor inherent in his character when surrounded by those with "true grit" such as Cogburn and Mattie. But he did so without making the character cartoonish, so that by the end of the film's climactic shootout, you believed he was capable of his actions. I didn't notice his accent being a problem and I'd already mentioned my problem with some of the dialogue. Now imagine the difficulty of Damon's job when he had to walk that fine line between giving his character an honest portrayal without becoming an annoyance (all while having to pretend 1/2 your tongue has been cut off)!