29 December 2010

Review: "True Grit"

Joel and Ethan Coen have achieved great success with their unique blend of comedy and drama. While True Grit is as well made and impeccably acted as one would expect from a Coen brothers film, it is a far cry from their usual efforts. They have adapted Charles Portis' 1968 novel and have stated their intention was to stay truer to the source material than the 1969 adaptation that starred John Wayne. For that reason, True Grit does not have the wicked dark humour one might expect. The Coens won four Academy Awards for No Country For Old Men (2007), a unique adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel that was full of the Coen brother's brand of humour. It is refreshing to see them tackle another adaptation without forcing their style. The Coens are no stranger to the western genre, as No Country For Old Men is considered an urban western, but to remake a film that won Western legend John Wayne his only Oscar could be viewed as a risk. Jeff Bridges does a great job creating his own Rooster Cogburn, but the real star of the film is Hailee Steinfeld, who is a revelation as the brash fourteen year old Mattie Ross. This is a compelling story about a young girl's attempt to avenge her father's death, and though True Grit lacks the traditional wry wit of the Coen brothers previous films, it is nonetheless an expertly made film with terrific performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and the undeniably brilliant Hailee Steinfeld.

Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) has traveled from her home in Yell County, Arkansas to Fort Smith to accompany the body of her dead father home. Her father had gone to Fort Smith to buy horses and was killed by one of his hired hands, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie takes it upon herself to hire a U.S. Marshall to track Chaney into the Indian Territory. She is given three recommendations but ultimately chooses to conduct business with Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), as he is the most merciless. He repeatedly rejects her offers to hire him and is less interested when she insists on joining him. While staying at a boarding house in Fort Smith, Mattie encounters LaBoeuf (Damon), a Texas Ranger who has been tracking Chaney for months. LaBoeuf believes it would be best for him to team up with Cogburn because Cogburn knows the territory and LaBoeuf knows Chaney's habits. The two men try to head off without Mattie, but the young girl is incorrigible and forces her way back into the mix. After a disagreement LaBoeuf heads off on his own, leaving Cogburn and Mattie to track Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), an outlaw gang with whom Chaney is believed to be riding. They end up at a shack and plan to ambush the gang when they return. LaBoeuf, arriving at the shack ahead of the gang, is injured in the ensuing shootout and he has another disagreement with Cogburn and they part ways again. The following morning Mattie encounters Chaney by the river and her gun misfires and Chaney drags her off to join his gang. Pepper forces Cogburn to retreat, leaving Mattie in the hands of her father's killer.

While True Grit does not have the trademark quirky style of the Coen brothers, it is a great Western with great performances from its main cast. Jeff Bridges, who crafted his most iconic character in the Coens' The Big Lebowski (1997), has great subtly in his characterization of Rooster Cogburn. He is a great actor who manages to make every character multidimensional. I was pleasantly surprised by Matt Damon who uses his natural arrogance to great as LaBoeuf. The Coen brothers gave Hailee Steinfeld, who only just turned fourteen, a lot of trust and confidence. She has such a natural charm and charisma that her insolent character is still sympathetic.
Westerns have become considerably less popular in the past decade and though the Coens have done nothing to reinvent the style, they have demonstrated an ability to work outside of their comfort zone. True Grit may not be the Coens best film or the greatest embodiment of their style, but Joel and Ethan Coen have used their great skills at writing, directing and editing to craft one of the best modern attempts at the Western genre.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

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