A blog about movies and filmmaking.


In western on December 20, 2010 at 12:19 am

I don’t know that I’ve ever mentioned this – though after 160+ posts, I’m bound to have – but I have a real soft spot for westerns. I consider three of them to be my top favorite movies of all time (you’ll have to ask to find out – or see if I mentioned them before.), so it was almost a given that I’d love the new movie from The Coen Bros., TRUE GRIT. Not only did it have being a western going for it – which they’d already won me over with their venture into the genre with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (tell me that’s not a western, I dare you); but it also included old stand-by actors like Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and No Country’s Josh Brolin.

So, to not bury the lede; I friggin loved the movie!

The story is about young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who has to take a train to recover her recently murdered father’s body. She sets out to settle some business – like return the horses that her dad had recently purchased, as well as hiring a gun to help her catch the man that did the killing. That gun turns out to be Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a marshal known for his, well, “true grit”. Mattie is also greeted by a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef, and played by Matt Damon) who is looking for the same man. So together – and begrudgingly – they set out to catch the dastardly Tom Chaney (Brolin).

The movie is a pinnacle in all things Coen Bros. from the beautiful camerawork by cinematographer, Roger Deakins (I guess that’s more his skill, than theirs; but they hired him), to the off-kilter dialogue and way characters speak. Here it’s a little more formalized and almost purposefully stiff in some places. Which is not a complaint, and there are plenty of moments of great “Coen Bros. reparte”. Especially in Mattie’s dealings with the local undertaker and livery owner.

Of course, there’s the humor.

I don’t know if the Coen’s have made a movie this funny since BURN AFTER READING (which was only two movies ago), or O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?. Every character has a moment of nearly down-right hilarity – while also managing to keep whatever built up tension or the mood of what was previously occurring. What helps is the biting dialogue of Mattie and Rooster. They have a comment about everything and neither gives a damn what you think about what they say. LaBoeuf, is nearly hysterical in the portrayal that Damon gives here. There’s a shade of the earnest buffoonishness he showed in THE INFORMANT, but the character himself is a nearly self-aware parody. He’s repeatedly mocked for being a Texas Ranger (wait’ll Chuck Norris hears about this), and about certain events that occur to him.

But a Coen’s movie is nothing without it’s deranged, dark twisted heart. You come to care for all these characters, fear for them in certain instances (because we also know that the Coen’s have no qualms about dispatching their heroes at any given moment – possibly a spoiler for every Coen’s movie), and in the end they show their sand. (I love these archaic descriptors.) You manage to even feel the slightest twinge of sympathy for the villainous characters – right before they’re wickedly dealt with.

So, then there’s the performances. Hailee Steinfeld manages to completely pull off the strong-headed Mattie Ross. Her wit and mind are sharp, but she’s willing and able to prove herself through action as well. She upstages her more established co-stars on a number of occasions and can even pull off the hat. Damon, as mentioned is fantastic as the kooky Texas Ranger, with his over enunciated “Ay-dee-Ose”‘s and clanking spurs (the only character I believe that actually wore them). A character that I almost believed might just be a man that likes to look the part of a Ranger but might not be able to back up his words. But he pulls his own, and comes through in a pinch. It’s also obvious that Damon was having a lot of fun with the role. A stark contrast to the more serious performances he’s been given when he’s had a gun in his hand.

Also, while their roles are smaller it’s worth mentioning just how stand-out a number of the supporting roles are. Jarlath Conroy, as the Undertaker, and Dakin Matthews as Colonel Stonehill (the livery owner) are equisite and deliver some of the movie’s standout lines. (Of which, I naturally cannot recall any of, at the moment.) The role of Chaney, played by Josh Brolin, I feel is almost under-served (finally a complaint! Almost.), considering he has the star role of being the man everyone’s after. He’s fitted with what seems like the bottom dentures of his JONAH HEX performance, and speaks in a dim-witted 3rd-person pattern, that fails to show us the intelligence he’s also supposed to have. His role is strong, and his final introduction is brilliantly defiant. But, while I can’t say the performance was weak (it never is with any of these guys), his character did seem the weakest of the movie. In the end, Chaney’s outshined by “Lucky” Ned Pepper, the leader of a gang that Chaney hitches up with – and who has a beef with Cogburn. Ned, who is played by the completely under-utilized – and nearly unrecognizable – Barry Pepper, comes off as the real villain of the piece. Even though he’s also fairly reasonable.

And finally, there’s ol’ Rooster Cogburn, himself. Jeff Bridges turns in not only another pitch-perfect Coen Bros. role and performance; but also creates a character full of conflict and fire. Early in the movie he’s testifying in a hearing about a family of roughnecks he’s killed. He shows contempt to the lawyer cross-examining him, growing tired of the charade and the hoops he has to jump through. Helps you to understand why he’s known and happy with dealing out his own justice on his own. Also, he spends a good portion of the movie drunk (if not the whole movie). With his awkward, and sometimes nearly incomprehensible growl, there are moments that are hard to understand what he says, but we always get what he means.

I realize I’ve mentioned neither the Charles Portis novel, or the 1969 adaptation that starred John Wayne as the cyclopian-marshal; and it’s because I have no familiarity with either. From what I can gather though, Joel and Ethan Coen have managed to stay close to the book – and depending on how faithful Wayne’s GRIT was to the book, that too. I looked up lines from the older movie and there’s a lot that’s the same. I’ll admit, I’ve never really been a fan of John Wayne – I’m more of an Eastwood fan – though now I do hope to see that version too. The movie is really interesting in how it skews not only the old west, but the western genre itself. I wouldn’t say it goes as far as UNFORGIVEN, in showing how cowboys changed with age; or even in DEADWOOD, with how the west itself was transformed with the onslaught of modernity. Instead it shows us a take on life on the frontier. Where a dead body is never left to lay – because it could be worth something to someone – and where usually even the loudest of words come down to whether you can back them up.

The only thing really left to say, is that I’m really surprised that this movie garnered a PG-13 rating. There’s some bloody, violent stuff here. It doesn’t go too over-board, but people that have commented on how lenient the rating system is getting toward violence – while there still being giant roadblocks for emotional and sexual plots. But, here people are dealt with harshly, and brutally and the movie doesn’t shy away from any of it. There’s also never any real threat posed to Mattie – in case you haven’t realized, she’s a 14-year old girl out in the mountains with cold, merciless men – but there are a couple of lines that show slight discomfort about certain things that could happen to her.

Overall though, The Coen Bros, have managed yet another coup. With their nearly flawless record, TRUE GRIT stands up as one of their best. It mixes all the things they do so well – the humor, the darkness and the ever-present unawareness of where they’ll take you next – and wraps it all in the pretty bow of the genre I love so much. True Grit, is definitely one of my favorites of the year.

  1. […] there’s Jeff Bridges. I’ve already commented on his performance in TRUE GRIT and he’s more than solid here. At first, when I saw Legacy, I was really turned off by what […]

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