Friday, February 18, 2011

True Grit

The brothers Coen really are unstoppable. It's hard to believe that they were going through a rocky period early on last decade with two misfires in a row--Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and the Lady Killers (2004)--because everything they've touched since then is gold. No Country for Old Men announced the comeback and Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, and now True Grit show just how much they've perfected their craft. Joel and Ethan move their peculiar brand of absurd dark humor along at a brisk pace, putting a great deal of attention into their wacko characters, and stopping mainly to offer an amused and sympathetic chuckle at their inevitable misfortunes. These movies are as sure of themselves as films can be.

True Grit--as has been backed up by some impressive box-office numbers-- is the Coens' most commercially accessible movie to date. It one ups Winter's Bone by going even younger with its badass female star--Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has no trouble reminding everyone that she's only 14--giving us a hero to root for without being nearly as depressing as that tale of rural plight. The story, allegedly more faithful to the Charles Portis novel of the same name than John Wayne's 1969 classic, is straightforward; Mattie has to avenge her fathers death and enlists the meanest Marshall she can find, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to help her track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who's had time to run off into Indian territory. A Texas ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) , also enters the picture, but Mattie has her doubts about him because she wants Chaney dead for killing her father and not for the negligible crime of killing some Texan senator. Gunfights ensue and a sometimes tenuous bond is formed between the headstrong Mattie and the gruff and unkempt Cogburn. True Grit certainly leans more towards the feel-good end of the spectrum, although that simplistic assessment can be deceiving.

For one, the movie maintains a casual attitude towards death quite different from that of most PG-13 movies, which sport bloodless bullet holes as a way to downplay the onscreen violence. Here, the gallows humor, which often involves actual gallows, touches on the same sort of casual nihilism we've come to expect from the Coens. And there's a lot of it (a lot of bloody bullet holes too). In one of the first scenes, three men getting hanged are the main attraction bringing eager spectators to town. The laughs come when the Indian one has a bag put over his head before he has a chance to pontificate and give his last words. Later, another hanged man becomes an unlikely commodity. Cut down from a tree by Mattie and Rooster, he's picked up by an Indian, who trades him to a comical dentist, who eventually offers him back to Mattie--after the teeth are taken out of course. Both scenes are thoroughly delightful.

I did get the feeling that some concessions were made to keep general audiences happy and to be faithful to the book. Some parts of the film are stirring where they might have been much drier, and the piled on climaxes (all in the book) start to feel they're cribbed from an Indiana Jones movie. All in all, True Grit treads fairly lightly, refusing to take itself too seriously. Perhaps that's for the better because the greatest joy here is in watching Jeff Bridges's often drunken antics and listening to his almost indecipherable ramblings. He's a force of nature as Rooster Cogburn, and the only actor here who's truly able to take on the wordy period vernacular with effortless ease. Not to say the others aren't good. Steinfeld does a fine job wrapping her way around her unwieldy dialogue, and Damon's Texan is hilarious as he trades insults with Cogburn and engages in a pissing contest over who's the more accurate shot. Shooting cornbread, they're both pretty lousy, but under pressure or from 400 hundred feet away, they can't miss.


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