Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie Review: True Grit

True Grit ****
Directed by:
Joel & Ethan Coen.
Written By: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen based on the novel by Charles Portis.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper), Dakin Matthews (Col. Stonehill), Jarlath Conroy (Undertaker), Paul Rae (Emmett Quincy), Domhnall Gleeson (Moon), Roy Lee Jones (Yarnell), Ed Corbin (Bear Man), Leon Russom (Sheriff), Bruce Green (Harold Parmalee), Candyce Hinkle (Boarding House Landlady), Peter Leung (Mr. Lee), Don Pirl (Cole Younger).

If you ever want to truly know what difference directors make on their films, all you need to do is watch the two versions of True Grit. Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film, starring John Wayne, is a typical B movie western made in the days when the genre was dying. It was a classic good vs. evil tale, and most likely would largely have been forgotten by now had Wayne, who had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year, had not won his long awaited Best Actor Oscar for his performance for playing Rooster Cogburn, the one eyed US Marshall who gets hired by a spunky young girl to find the man who killed her father. The Coen brothers version, made 41 years later, tells the same story, and like the last film, takes much of its dialogue right from the great Charles Portis novel on which both films are based. But while I think the 1969 version is rather simplistic, this new film is steeped with subtext - and continues the Coens examination of morals in a world where there really are no good guys or bad guys. The critics, even those who have admired the film, who claim that this is Coen brothers light - a simple genre exercise, were not really paying attention. There is nothing simple about the Coens version of True Grit.

The plot of the movie involves the murder of a good man by an employee when the two are in town on business. Everyone knows that the murderer is Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin) - but no one really knew the victim, and Cheney has taken off in Indian country, and taken up with a brutal gang led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and no one wants to pursue him. That is until the victims 14 year old daughter, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) shows up in town. She’s the oldest child, and now with a dead father and simple minded mother, she will be in charge. But she wants vengeance for her father. She asks the Sheriff who the best Marshall to contact is. When she sees Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) in court - and hears first hand his shoot first ask questions never attitude, she knows she has found her man. He agrees to take on the job, and will eventually he joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBouef (Matt Damon) who has been tracking Cheney since he left Texas where he murdered a Texas State Senator. What neither realize is that Mattie intends to come along with them to catch Cheney - and she is not going to take no for an answer.

The casting in the movie is crucial for what the Coens want to do in this movie. Jeff Bridges is hardly the hero that John Wayne portrayed in the earlier movie. He plays Cogburn as a course, profane, drunken, violent man with no real morals. He was part of a violent group of Confederates during the Civil War, was a criminal in his past, and now that he is a US Marshall, he has found a legal way to continue to do what he likes - which is to kill people. Bridges plays him as a charming man - at times downright hilarious as he drunkenly mumbles his way through his performance. But there is depth here as well - as when he tries to ignore questions about his past - the bad part anyway - or as he comes to respect Mattie for her determination. For her part, Steinfeld, in her first major role, is a true revelation as Mattie. Kim Darby played the role in the original, and for my money was rather annoying and whiny. Steinfeld goes the opposite direction - making her a little more na├»ve and vulnerable underneath a tough exterior. This really is Mattie’s story, and she nails it. More underrated is the performance by Matt Damon - who we initially feel is an asshole, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that he really isn’t very confident, and is simply putting on a tough guy act. Brolin’s Cheney is kind of like Kurtz in Hearts of Darkness or Apocalypse Now where he is talked about for the entire film, but not seen until the end. However, unlike Kurtz, who is larger than life even when we eventually meet him, Brolin’s Cheney is a pathetic, slow witted man. Yes, he’s evil, but you almost feel sorry for the bastard - and Brolin is great in his few scenes. And like all of the Coens movies, they fill even the smallest supporting roles with great character acting - Barry Pepper, who really does seem to be channeling Robert Duvall who played the same role in the original, stands out the most - but lots of the small roles make an impression - especially Ed Corbin who plays a character appropriately named Bear Man.

As with all of the Coens films, the filmmaking here is impeccable. Roger Deakins cinematography could very well be the best of the year - this is a beautiful film, but one that also captures the cold, harsh landscapes, and drains the romanticism out of the genre. As they have done in films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Millers Crossing and Blood Simple - hell really all of their films - when the violence comes it is quick, brutal and bloody. This is not really a fun Western, but a brutal and violent one.

I think what makes the biggest difference between the two films - and really they are as different as two films with the same plot can be - is the ending. When Cogburn accepts Mattie, and admits that she also has “true grit”, it was a victory in the original film. But here, it really is Mattie’s tragedy. This is a film about the futility of revenge and a moral quagmire where the line between the good guys and the bad guys is so blurred that it is non-existent, but Mattie doesn’t seem to realize this. She ends up alone, just like Cogburn, with no self awareness about how they have wasted their lives. That is the major difference between the two films - and what makes the 1969 film a fun B-Western, and what makes the Coen brothers film a masterpiece,

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