Friday, December 24, 2010

Film Review--True Grit (2010)

The press for the Coen Brothers' adaptation of True Grit, of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis and not of the 1969 Henry Hathaway film, not surprisingly, has focused on Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, the role that John Wayne played in the first film and the character with the titular grit. Fairly, Bridges is fantastic in the part, losing himself entirely in the surly alcoholic grime of the US Marshall, but this story isn't his and neither is the film. Those honors go to Mattie Ross, the steely young woman that hires Cogburn, and Hailee Steinfield, the brilliant young talent at the heart of True Grit.

There's good reason why John Wayne is the one remembered from Hathaway's picture, even though the essential structure of that film remains unchanged here. He's an icon for a reason, but he was always a dominating figure wherever he appeared. He needed costars of a certain strength to make up for his top heavy swagger, but Kim Darby was no Vera Miles and, the Rhinestone Cowboy himself, Glen Campbell (of all people), cast in the role of Ranger La Boeuf , is certainly no James Stewart, so it's Wayne's one-eyed marshall that we are left with forty years later. The film is good, not great, and not worth its reputation. It's certainly not necessary viewing to enjoy the Coens' effort, a much stronger and more complete film, most unlike what they've done in the past. Instead of a movie that has that “Coen Brothers feel,” a concept they so expertly parodied in Barton Fink, True Grit is just a damn fine Western.

That this is such a straightforward revenge tale, it's a little surprising that the Coens decided to tackle Portis' novel. Plenty of genre stories have more moral ambiguity and less conventional plotting, but they saw something in the characters and the simplicity of the story, or maybe they just love the book. Either way, the result is a fantastic revisionist-style genre film that represents the the themes of the book in much darker fashion than its predecessor approaches. It's hard to tell if this is more or less violent than No Country for Old Men, but it's certainly less expected here than in their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel and much more gratuitous. Don't get me wrong; as a lifelong horror fan, I have high appreciation for smashed heads and blown chests, so I'm not exactly complaining. Seeing skulls crushed against stone here, however, does little to serve the story, but adds at least a certain measure of shock value, as evidenced by a number of disgusted noises in the dark. People can quibble with the necessity of it, but it punctuates the harshness of the world these characters inhabit without resorting to outright explanation.

True Grit is an unflinching and sometimes quite brutal film, which makes it all the more surprising that then 13-year-old Hailee Steinfield fits so naturally into the scene. Very few, if any, scenes in the film don't involve Mattie Ross and Steinfield stands up ridiculously well next to some heavyweight actors, often outshining some of their work. Mattie is a hard young woman, steeled by the ranch and smart from her effort. With her father dead and an obvious lack of regard for the effectiveness of either her family or the law, she has prepared herself to deal with issues well beyond her years. She built herself into as good a negotiator as a conman and at least as good a bounty hunter as the Texas Ranger she travels with. Steinfield inhabits the part completely; the utter joy that washes over her face when she gets the chance to shoot the man who killed her father offsets her sadness from his death which sits under the surface. She'll barely admit her sorrow, but she's out in the wilderness for mean and dark purposes and, despite any physical and experiential limitations she might have, she's out for blood. For somebody at the proper age to represent this is really an amazing thing. This wasn't the case when Kim Darby, at least seven years her senior at the time, played the part. Mattie Ross is the kind of role that an actress like Barbara Stanwyck would have excelled with, though I don't know that even her greatness would be better than what Steinfield shows here; her total conviction trumps most all child acting that I've ever seen.

Jeff Bridges is as good as you expect him to be and, while his grungy appearance contrasts starkly with his hairpiece sporting, corset wearing counterpart in John Wayne. Unlike Wayne, Bridges actually looks like he spends his days on the range and, when his nights can be spent indoors, they're muddled by a bath of whiskey. The thought of Bridges playing Rooster Cogburn was delicious, and he does not disappoint in the execution. I'm not as thrilled with the rest of the major casting, though I can't have too much trouble with it; they're up against some pretty tough lead competition. Matt Damon's playing Ranger La Boeuf and, while his performance is adequate and, at time, pretty funny, he never escapes being Matt Damon the way that Bridges and Steinfield get away from themselves. Josh Brolin makes a slightly better mark as Tom Chaney, the man who killed Mattie's father, but I can't help but feel like this role, as well as Damon's, may have been better suited in the hands of lesser-known actors. Part of it feels like the gang's all here—plus one girl—and the parts may have been better served by people outside their circle. There were clear parts for John Goodman and Michael Lerner, why not them? I shouldn't really quibble over such things, since I did like their performances, but I wish that the main supporting roles were filled by people without big name Hollywood baggage.

The important technical pieces are intact. Roger Deakins shoots the film and Carter Burwell scores it. Both aspects of the film are brilliant, though much discussion of their respective parts require too much explanation, so should just be experienced. True Grit is a fine film, a departure for the Coen Brothers for sure, but a welcome one. This is genre fiction played on a very high level that is worthy of whatever awards come its way. Mostly, I hope to see more from Hailee Steinfield and, even if she never does another film, her portrayal of Mattie Ross should go down as something all young actors should aspire to.