Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review: "True Grit"

If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm what is politely referred to as a "genre guy" when it comes to entertainment; specifically the Nerd Trinity: Fantasy/Horror/Sci-Fi. But I also love plenty of other kinds of movies from all sorts of genres and long-time readers know I try see a balance of movies.

That's not to say I'm always willing to step out of my magic circle when it comes to other genres. War pictures are generally right out. As the children of a man who grew up during and subsequently became fascinated with WWII, my sister and I suffered through every episode of PBS' "The World at War" at least 20 times, while listening to our father espouse on military strategy like he was Alexander. I've never seen Saving Private Ryan; Full Metal Jacket or Platoon and have no intentions of doing so. Heresy, you say? You didn't grew up in Uncle P's house, so don't judge.

Of course, my father was a child of his time and he also loved the Universal Horror movies; Buck Rogers serials and Westerns.
To be honest, I can take or leave Westerns. Especially those of the Tom Mix and Roy Rogers type on which Dad was raised -- "You'd get a newsreel; a cartoon; a serial; another cartoon; the B picture and then the A picture. You were in that seat for all damned day for a quarter, which included popcorn!" Anyway, I can count on a hand a half the Westerns I really like a lot while filling the other half with Westerns I can sit through: Unforgiven; The Wild Bunch; The Outlaw Josie Wales; a few others. As a kid, I loved True Grit, though I can't exactly tell you why. 1968's True Grit won John Wayne his only Oscar as U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn. Wayne played himself, as he always did, so we must suspect that he won for his body of work, rather than his skills as a Thespian.

The Coen Brothers' new film -- based on the same novel -- is neither a remake, nor a "re-imagining" but rather a more faithful adaption of Charles Portis' novel about an extraordinary young lady taking on an extraordinary task -- avenging her father's murder. Taking over for the Duke is the Dude, Jeff Bridges as the hard drinking, one-eyed Reuben 'Rooster' Cogburn. The extraordinary young lady is Mattie Ross, played in the 1968 version by Kim Darby (Don't Be Afraid of the Dark; Better Off Dead). Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is the 14 year-old Mattie in the new film; a determined little powerhouse who can quote law books, speaks Latin and can broker a deal that would shame Old Scratch himself. Mature beyond her years and tenacious as all get out, Mattie refuses to take "No" for an answer in hiring Cogburn to track down her father's killer. Meanwhile, Texas Ranger LeBeouf (pronounced Le-Beef) has been trailing the same man for murdering a politician in Texas. Both LeBeouf and Cogburn encourage Mattie to go home, but she refuses and ends up accompanying the two men into the Choctaw Territories in search of their man, who has apparently taken up with a man Cogburn has been after, as well. D and I saw it tonight as part of our Holiday get-together and we both agreed on how good it really was, meeting his and exceeding my expectations.

So, first of all... Yes, Bridges and Damon are so very good in this film and very much deserve the Oscars for which they are both likely to be nominated and I will talk about them both (and others) in bit. But this is Ms Steinfeld's movie and she shines in a debut performance that will be remembered for a very long time. While Ms Darby played Mattie as a meek thing finally asserting herself, Steinfeld plays her as an assertive, no-nonsense woman on a mission which she is not about to abort, no matter what. One of her best moments is near the end of the film; after all the hangings, stabbings and shootings she's seen (semi-spoiler alert) something happens that finally lets us see the little girl inside. Steinfeld's accent, mannerisms and delivery are so dead on, one might think she stepped right out of 19th Century Arkansas. I am making a bold prediction for a long and wonderful career for Ms Steinfeld.

Much has been made of Damon's performance as the almost foppish LeBeouf and I certainly agree that it's another in a growing line of great performances from an actor I am growing to love more and more. Of course, the question on everyone's mind - how is Bridges as Rooster? Well, I'm here to tell you that he's just terrific. The seasoned veteran simply goes to work and puts his own amazing take on the character. Yes, it's more Dude than Duke but in the hands of the Coens, that's a really good thing. A drunker and more garrulous Cogburn than Wayne, Bridges plays him as a lonely old coot who is wont to run at the mouth who just maybe sees a spark of his own youthful self in young Mattie, who can roll his cigarettes almost with looking.  An almost unrecognizable Barry Pepper is Lucky Ned, leader of the gang and Josh Brolin is the man Mattie wants dead. Both are excellent here and Brolin should be glad to end his year with an actually good Western. Of course, every aging character actor around shows up in one form or another, most notably Ed Corbin in a hilarious bit as The Bear Man; Jariath Conroy as the Undertaker and Leon Rossum as the Sheriff.

The production design is both elegant and appropriately dire and the Coens' go-to Cinematographer Roger Deakins doesn't waste a single opportunity to capture the vast wilderness that was (and in some places still is) the Southwest at the turn of the last century. Often very funny but valiantly poignant, I must now amend my growing list of Top Ten Movies of 2010. And I am officially starting the campaign to nominate Hailee Steinfeld for "Best Actress."  **** (Four out of Four Stars). True Grit is rated PG-13 for "intense sequences of Western violence" See this movie!

More, anon.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

It is next on my list. I like Westerns, but I really love Coen Bros.