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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews True Grit

This week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly features a brief interveiw with the Coen Brothers, in which the writer congratulates Joel & Ethan Coen on True Grit, a “four-quadrant” movie (meaning a flick that appeals to men and women, young and old), and the biggest box-office success of their careers.

It’s delightful to see the public embracing True Grit to the degree that it has, because while this film might be more easily categorizable than the last several Coen Brothers films (A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men), it’s still a Western that has been filtered through their unique and sometimes bizarre sensibilities.  And I love it all the more for that!

Hailee Steinfeld plays fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross.  Her father has recently been murdered by an outlaw named Tom Chaney, but despite her efforts, it doesn’t seem like any lawman seems much interested in pursuing him.  So Mattie hires herself a bounty hunter: the aging, cranky, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).  She also encounters a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who has been pursuing Chaney, under a different name, for another murder that he committed.  At first she takes a strong disliking to the pompous Ranger, but as the chase commences and she & Cogburn continue encountering LaBoeuf, Mattie begins to wonder if she hasn’t hitched her wagon to the wrong horse.

I found True Grit to be great fun from start to finish.  There’s a strong emotional throughline — Mattie’s increasingly desperate efforts to find someone who will help her achieve vengeance for her father’s death — and the film is very well-paced.  I thought it was intriguing and engaging throughout.  As always, the Coens know how to stage an action scene, and there are several sequences that are true nail-biters (including the shoot-out outside of the cabin about half-way through the film, and of course the climactic encounter with Tom Chaney and Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang).  The film is intense and violent at times, but it’s never gory.  True Grit is rated PG-13 (in that EW interview, Joel Coen comments: “It seemed obvious to us that because it’s a movie where the main character is a 13-year-old girl, 13- and 14-year-old girls should be able to see the movie”), but it never feels dumbed down or softened the way I often feel PG-13 movies are.

But the real joys of True Grit are the tremendous performances.  Jeff Bridges proves once again that he is unbeatable when directed by the Coen Brothers.  His protrayal of Rooster Cogburn is one of those iconic performances that I suspect we’ll be seeing clips from in highlight reels for years to come.  Rooster is tough and cunning, but also prey to weakness (his age and his fondness for booze often hobble him).  He displays an affection for Mattie that never crosses the line into simplistic schmaltz, and his desperate actions in the closing minutes of the film are heart-rending and well-earned.

Matt Damon is also tremendous fun as LaBoeuf.  He’s an object of some ridicule in his early scenes, but Mr. Damon never steps into comedy-land.  One can sense that there is perhaps more to LaBoeuf than might meet the eye, and Mr. Damon preserves a sense of danger to the character throughout the film.  We’re never quite sure what this man is capable of, and what he might do next, which provides a current of uneasy tension to all of his scenes.

I was very impressed with the work of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie.  Child performances can be a tricky thing, but Ms. Steinfeld’s performance feels 100% genuine from start-to-finish.  She plays her scenes with great reality and honest emotion, and she seems able to deliver her verbose dialogue with effortless grace.  I look forward to seeing what she does next.

There are some great actors in supporting roles as well.  I don’t think it’s a secret, but somehow I was unaware of who was playing the fugitive Chaney, so I had a fun surprise when Mattie (and the audience) finally caught up with him late in the film.  I suppose one can easily find out who this is, but I think I’ll preserve the mystery for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film.  I will say that he’s great, turning in a very against-type performance.  I was also quite taken with Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned.  He has a small role in the film, but boy does he make the most of it, creating a quite unique and dangerous character.

The only part of the film that leaves me a bit uncertain is the epilogue.  (I’ll be vague here, so as to try to avoid spoilers, but readers beware.)  We meet the elderly version of one of the main characters, but I thought the performance was a little flat.  Not terrible, but I had a hard time squaring that character with the person we’d seen throughout the film to that point.  The epilogue is also a bit perplexing in that, really, not much happens.  An attempt at a reunion is sadly fruitless.  I left the theatre wondering if those closing scenes were necessary.  But, after some reflection, I’ve decided I quite like the ending.  It leaves the viewer feeling a bit uncertain — without the type of nice, neat wrap-up one might hope for at a story’s conclusion — but, in that, the film is quite like life, and I must commend the Coen Brothers on avoiding a more cliched Hollywood ending.

I’m thrilled to see the Coen Brothers leave their mark on another genre.  True Grit is a winner, and well worth your time if you haven’t seen it yet.

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