Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (Novel: Charles Portis)
Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images
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I don’t know if I’m warming up to the Coens or if their filmmaking style is just becoming less smug. True Grit is easily one of their better films, better than their Best Picture nominee last year A Serious Man, though still second to my personal preference of their films: The Man Who Wasn’t There. The story, re-adapted from the novel by Charles Portis, may seem to some to be an adaptation of the original film with John Wayne. However, as the makers have clearly stated and others have previously observed, the adaptation is more closely hewn to the novel.
As with the original, Jeff Bridges is the central focus of the film even if it is told from the point of view of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the eldest daughter of a man shot in cold blood after trying to assist an employee. Bridges plays Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, an all-or-nothing U.S. Marshal a little too fond of whiskey and far too ungracious to be personable. She hires this feisty drunk to take her into the Indian territories where the man who killed her father has fled. While he doesn’t want to take her along, she worms her way in and, after a time, seems to welcome her company. They are joined by a pesky, self-centered Texas Ranger LaBeouf (pronounced throughout the film as “la beef”) who is also after the culprit, one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for the assassination of a senator back in his home state. While rivals on the trail, all three come to rely on one another to achieve their various goals, but not without much hemming, hawing and trash talking along the way.
Bridges is a force of considerable strength in the film. It’s a role he seemed born to play despite his more easy-going roles in the past. Although there are slight shades of Bad Blake from Crazy Heart, he manages to evoke the sense of frustrated entitlement and confused retribution necessary in the character. We have no problem liking him despite his drunken callousness. Steinfeld is a find discovery. Although her character is a bit more headstrong and clever for her own good, we sympathize with her plight and happily support her efforts. And when she manages to sting nearly every member of the cast with a steel-tongued barb and then stand equally against them in the film, she shows her promise as an actor.
When the film first made its way onto my Oscar radar, I thought for sure that either Brolin or Matt Damon who plays the Texas Ranger, would be Oscar contenders. However, both manage to pale distinctively in comparison to their co-stars. Brolin’s accent and physical carriage, seeming to suggest a character who is mentally handicapped, is not only off-putting, but frustrating. We’re shown how vicious and murderous he could be, but it seems at odds with his personality. There’s even an impression that he was acting on someone else’s orders when he killed Mattie’s father even though we know that not to be the case. Damon does fine until his character has an incident that effects his speech and after that, his lisping performance grates on your nerves, as if his character had already not begun to do prior. It’s like many of the Coens’ other unrealistic characters that make their films feel so snottily smug.
December 27, 2010