**** (out of 5)
December 22, 2010
Jeff Bridges as ROOSTER COGBURN
Hailee Steinfeld as MATTIE ROSS
Matt Damon as LABOEUF
Josh Brolin as TOM CHANEY
Barry Pepper as LUCKY NED PEPPER
Directed by: The Coen Brothers
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
One of the problems with watching a film by the Coen Brothers is that they have made such incredible movies for the past three decades that they have so much to live up to. This factor tarnished the films they chose to follow up the Oscar-winning “Not Country for Old Men.” “Burn After Reading” and “A Serious Man” were good movies, but they just weren’t as incredible as their predecessor.
Looking at “True Grit” in a vacuum – not just free of the Coen Brothers other films but the original 1969 John Wayne western as well – it is a fantastic movie experience, easily one of the best of the year. But my viewing of “True Grit” came with the aforementioned baggage. A similar thing happened when I saw “The Big Lebowski” as a follow-up to “Fargo.” No matter how awesome “The Big Lebowski” is, it was still a step down from a very high pedestal.
But the Coens do their best to overcome this, and that’s what makes “True Grit” so good. They chose to go back to the original novel rather than remake the John Wayne film. It’s a minor point, but worth mentioning because too often Hollywood remakes are about tearing down the original.
This story is very familiar, in which 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has come to town to retrieve her father’s body. She also seeks justice for his murder, and when the local authorities don’t help her, she turns to reclusive and ruthless U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her. Using persistence and determination, Mattie accompanies Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) on a mission to bring her father’s murderer to justice.
There’s a lot of similarities between this film and the 1969 version, and viewed too close together, they almost seem redundant. However, the Coens make some wise choices in the assembly. The most important thing they did was have Bridges build his own version of Rooster Cogburn. It is too easy to just redo the John Wayne version, but Bridges gives the film a very different and very unique take on the character. In fact, they are as dissimilar as two performances can get. Yet Bridges still embodies the core spirit of the role and makes the audience care about him.
But beyond Bridges’ performance is the performance of Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. Like Kim Darby in the original, she really sells the role and almost upstages her co-stars. There’s a lot of accolades being heaped on Bridges for his role, but it’s Steinfeld who really shows some fresh acting chops.
This film may not be wall-to-wall action, but it definitely has its powerful moments. But such was the 1969 version, delivering more of a characters study than anything else. Like “No Country for Old Men,” the Coens let the source material guide “True Grit.” It may not result in the most modern delivery of a film, but it works, and Coen Brothers fans will love it.
And much like their other movies, the incidental elements of the film are expertly done. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is simply breathtaking, putting you in the heart of the action and making you feel like you’re out in the wilderness with the characters. Likewise, the music is strong – different from what you get in the trailer (which is not uncommon, of course) – but very appropriate.
But I caution anyone to go into this movie without a preconceived notion. It’s a bit different for the Coens. It’s not saturated with their quirkiness you saw in films like “Raising Arizona,” but quirkiness alone doesn’t make a great film (or “Burn After Reading” would have been one of their best). It has humor, but it’s masked in the script, playing more off irony and delivery than set-ups and punch lines, like we saw “No Country for Old Men.”
But the bottom line is that if you like a good, old-fashioned western, you should enjoy this film. On the same token, if you like a modern, contemplative western, this works as well. “True Grit” is not the best of the best of the Coens’ work, but it’s up near the top.