True Grit Review (4.5 of 5)

Although the Coen brothers latest offering will not be replacing my all time favorite film of the Western genre (Unforgiven), I am finding it difficult not to put it at the top of my list of 2010 films.

It’s in my Top 3, no question. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the original True Grit (based on the Charles Portis novel) starring John Wayne that I could not make a comparison between the two based on memory.

This did not have quite the quirky imprinting that the Coens’ generally suffuse into their picture shows. This was aiming for realism, even when it came to showing the uglier side of sensibilities typical of life at the time. There aren’t any punches pulled. It doesn’t go out of its way to distort, though, as some filmmakers get so caught up in trying to shock that they lose the illusion of reality.

Their effort in 2007, No Country For Old Men, seemed like their most ‘adult’ undertaking, having more of a serious tone than their other films. While I don’t think this is as good as that one; it does have more in common in their approach to the subject matter than to their past achievements.

It does have all of the elements that the Coens are known for, but with just a bit more refinement. One attribute that is common to all of their films, is that they go the extra mile to capture the flavor and more importantly the vernacular of the particular region, era, and genre.

Early on, I thought Haillee Steinfeld playing Mattie Ross, the determined young protagonist of True Grit, was acting a bit stiff in her deliveries. That is, until I realized that she wasn’t the only character that spoke thus. Not only did the Coens’ capture the dialect and euphamisms of where the film is set, they also captured a marked cadence of 1800s Arkansas that the book describes.

Film critic Roger Ebert called this “the first straight genre exercise” in the Coens’ careers, but I would disagree with that. All of their films deal with principles and/or morality.

Most of their films revolve around characters who make decisions that are ultimately immoral.

Even if the decision made was well intentioned, it always leads to dire consequences. This film is no different in that regard. There is a price to be paid for acts of a selfish nature in a Coen film.

The film begins with a Biblical quote ‘The wicked flee when no man pursueth…’ from Proverbs 28:1. The last half of that is ‘but the righteous are bold as a lion’, which they left out. Adding that last bit actually puts the meaning in a different context, but I got the idea that the Coens’ meaning didn’t entirely apply to the villains in the story.

The use of symbolism is subtle, but clear in True Grit. They’re far more adept at using it as a storytelling device than a lot of working directors like Martin Scorsese, who employed symbols rather clumsily in Shutter Island.  While reviewing this film, the story’s purpose and the underlying themes become even more clear.

By starting with the Biblical quotation they put the film in a religious context, complete with universal symbols that are common to anyone who pays attention to such things in literature and film, both classic and contemporary.

The soundtrack, which centered around a 19th century hymnal ‘Leaning On The Everlasting Arms’, also lent to this and had a wry significance in the end.

The story itself is, from what I remember, the same as the original. The 14 year old Mattie Ross looks to hire a US Marshall to track down her father’s killer.

She chooses one, Rooster Cogburn, based on that he is described as the most merciless.

Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges in top form,  is overweight, prone to intemperance, and most importantly broke , so he reluctantly takes on the job.

They’re joined in their pursuit, by a prissy Texas Ranger named La Beoeuf (pronounced ‘la beef’). He’s there mainly, I think, to provide some contrast to Cogburn.

The movie stays on the protagonist for the majority of the film; the audience only getting glimpses of the quarry when Mattie or Rooster come across them.

This does not end as a typical Hollywood western, no matter what Ebert or any other movie reviewer says. I will say it is a little predictable until the climax, but then it veers off in typical Coen brothers fashion.

There  are many visually striking shots along the way, but there was one in particular that I think help set up the finale. Although the final 10 minutes seems to wander off into left field. there are other things mentioned and shown earlier in the film that do forecast what’s coming. It’s not just out of the blue and given the initial quote at the start, elevates a simple western to something with a little more to chew on.

The villains only make brief appearances. Josh Brolin plays the pursued, Tom Chaney.  He’s workmanlike as Chaney. This isn’t nearly the part that he played working with the Coens in ‘No Country’, but he’s still solid in just a little bit of screen time.

However, Barry Pepper, appropriately playing ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper, the leader of the gang that Chaney joins, is a standout in a smaller role. Every line he delivered seemed to be accompanied by a blast of loose saliva. Luckily for the other actors, he was usually at a distance.

I love movies where the landscapes are as much a part of the film as the main characters, This is certainly one of those. Wide panoramic shots of the terrain are constant; the kinds of shots that harken back to the greatest visual filmmakers of yesteryear (like David Lean). Stephen Spielberg loves those sunset silhouette shots and True Grit makes use of the same.

DP Roger Deakins has long been a collaborator on the Coens’ projects. He’s worked with many other great directors on films (like The Shawshank Redemption and The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford).

This is among his most beautiful works of art. You FEEL the temperatures being depicted onscreen.

The snow. The warmth of a fire. The dust in the desolate townships. He’s an old master craftsman and just keeps getting better.

I’m sure there will be ‘Oscar talk’ for at least one of the actors, Deakins for the cinematography, as well as the Coens themselves  for directing and screenplay nods. Bridges is certainly deserving of  another award for this.

Bridges looks as little like Jeff Bridges maybe than he ever has in a role. He’s better here than in 2009’s Crazy Heart, where he won for Best Actor.

Supposedly picked out of some 15,000 hopefuls for the roll of Mattie, Haillee Steinfeld is also deserving of some credit. Usually when it comes to younger actors, it’s the director that should get most of the praise. Here, though she has to carry the film for long stretches and she does it rather well.

I read that Ethan Coen had called her character ‘is a pill’, but I never found her annoying as much as blindly steadfast in her determination to avenge her father’s murder. She seeks retribution as much as any kind of justice.

Nothing is going to get in her way of doing that, which by the end of the film you realize (at least I did) was part of the working towards the point of the film.

The movie is NOT just one of those art house films where the entertainment value is measured almost entirely by nuance. It is disparate as westerns tend to be, but the story ‘moves’ very well. It’s never boring and it’s one of those that I’ll probably see again at the movie theater.

While I had fun at Tron: Legacy last week; if you have a chance to see a Jeff Bridges film over the holidays, I would offer up True Grit, instead. Tron 2 was also visually striking (obviously in a drastically different way), but lacked the substance that this one has.

If you’re a western fan, then it’s a no brainer, anyway. True Grit, does indeed possess ‘ grit’ and is one of the top films of 2010.

4.5 0f 5 (whatevers)

One Response to “True Grit Review (4.5 of 5)”

  1. […] True Grit [The more I thought about this film, the more I see how carefully crafted it was. Right from the […]

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