Sunday, January 2, 2011

Movie Review: True Grit

True Grit (2010)
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen

I've never had much interest in the Old West genre. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions (the main one being the 1989 miniseries, Lonesome Dove). I haven't read Charles Portis's novel, True Grit, nor have I seen the 1969 film adaptation starring John Wayne. I went to see the 2010 remake solely for the fact that it was directed by the Coen Brothers. I'd watch anything they directed (Fargo and No Country For Old Men are each one of the best films of the 1990s and 2000s, respectively). It goes without saying that I had high hopes for True Grit.

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is on a mission to either kill or arrest Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the farmhand who murdered her father for $150 and a couple of gold coins back home in Arkansas. She enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a gruff deputy marshal who is fond of the drink. Rooster has "true grit" a quality Mattie requires in the man she hires to go after her father's killer. Her only condition is that she be allowed to accompany Rooster on his quest for Chaney. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also hunting for Chaney for the murder of a senator, mainly because there is a large monetary award for the man who finds Chaney, dead or alive. Mattie, however, is adamant that Chaney should be brought to trial in Arkansas for her father's murder and not some dead senator. The unlikely threesome sets out from Fort Smith, each with their own personal motivations towards Chaney.

The Coens once again use cinematographer Roger Deakins to capture the dust and filth of life and travel in the America of the mid-1800s. Although not as visually beautiful as No Country For Old Men, Deakins and the Coens use muted colour tones and wide, panoramic shots of the land. It's visual storytelling at its finest: three characters dwarfed by both the land around them and the challenging task of bringing in Chaney.

This is probably the most un-Coen Brothers of their films. I had to keep reminding myself that it was their film. Their wicked sense of humour is absent (no scenes involving body parts protruding from wood chippers here). While there are light-hearted moments, it's obvious that the comedic scenes are lifted from the book and not from the minds of the Coens themselves. The plotting of the film is also much more concise. Not a lot of screen time is used in developing the relationships of the main characters. The reason the end result ultimately works so well is because of the performances of the three lead actors.

Bridges, fresh off his Oscar win last year for Crazy Heart, is at his finest. He's such a consistently excellent actor that he can make someone as gruff and coarse as Rooster a likeable, even sympathetic, unlikely hero. He nails both his dramatic and comedic scenes and his blossoming friendship with young Mattie is the heart and soul at the centre of the film.

Steinfeld is one of the finest young acting discoveries in recent memory. As Peter Howell said in his review of the film for the Toronto Star, "she's fourteen going on firecracker." In a role that could have easily turned into cringe-inducing precociousness in the hands of a lesser actress (or an actress who overplays her role in an attempt to be seen as "one of the grown-up" ...think Dakota Fanning), Steinfeld is a mature actress who understands her character is, ultimately, still a child. Although Mattie is well-educated and has an eviable whip-smart vocabulary, she's still a young girl with long braids mourning the death of her father. Steinfeld measures each emotion, allowing Mattie to have both "wise-beyond-her-years" moments as well as scenes where she shows Mattie's age by suddenly erupting in childish glee or wonder.

Bridges and Steinfeld are both wonderful and each has been courting (much deserved) Oscar buzz for their performances. However, upon leaving the film, it was Damon's role as LaBoeuf (pictured above left) that struck a cord. Here was a man who initially sneered at Mattie's insistence on joining in on the hunt for Chaney and who would punish her like the child she was when he felt she'd misbehaved. His derisive attitude towards her suggests the road travelling with him will likely be a long and unfortunate one for Mattie. However, the gradual friendship that grows between LaBoeuf and Mattie is almost as effective, if not moreso, than her relationship with Rooster. Mattie and LaBoeuf had to work harder for their mutual respect for one another and the chemistry between Damon and Steinfeld is palpable in every scene they share. I think I was most impressed by Damon's performance. He was playing against his usual type (no Jason Bourne-esque action sequences here) and his memorable and understated performance leaves the viewer wanting to know more about the mysterious LaBoeuf. Damon proved he is a damn fine actor, something we only previously caught glimpses of in the Bourne movies and in his underrated performance in The Talented Mr. Ripley

In the end, True Grit is a genuinely enjoyable film filled with great performances. Although not the Coen Brothers best effort, it's another solid piece of cinema to add to their filmography. The only two downsides to the film: (1) The concise storytelling didn't aways work in the Coen's favour as I wished we got to know at least a bit more about the three main characters and (2) the ending was so sudden and jarring to the point of being outright distracting and disappointing. The end of True Grit did not have the abrupt beauty and power of the final scene in No Country For Old Men. Instead (without giving any spoilers), it throws a bunch of information at the viewer than cues the end credits. I've always been a fan of "show, don't tell." However, if the director chooses not to let us see it (which is fine), than it would be better just to leave well enough alone (like in No Country).