Friday, December 24, 2010

Danny Is a Man of TRUE GRIT ...!


- Is there anything that the Coen Bros. can't do? When you think about the sheer diversity of their filmography, it's pretty astounding. They've done neo-noirs, screwball comedies, social satire .. and now, with True Grit, you can add classic Western to the list. Sure, the Coens dabbled with the themes and style of the genre with No Country For Old Men, but now, they've fully embraced the Wild West - adapting the Charles Portis novel of the same name, a novel that was, of course, once made into a film starring none other than John Wayne. This being the Coens though, True Grit is anything but a typical Western. The story might be familiar, but the film retains the brother's unique stylistic tendencies - expertly-penned dialogue, a mix of moody atmospherics with bouts of brutal violence, and a general disdain for traditional narrative structure. In that regard, True Grit is an interesting beast - it feels like both a classic Western movie and like a Coen Bros. movie. The contradiction can be jarring at times, but it also makes for a film that never fails to keep you on your toes. Featuring several great performances and filled to the brim with memorable moments, TRUE GRIT is another great achievement from the Coens, and one of 2010's true must-see movies.

True Grit's storyline contains many of the tried-and-true tropes of the Western genre, but it's also a coming-of-age story and a tale of revenge. The central character here is fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in a stunning screen debut. Mattie is a whip-smart, no-nonsense girl, and she's out to find the outlaw who shot, robbed, and killed her father. Leaving her mother and younger siblings, Mattie sets off to see to it that her father's killer - a man by the name of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) - is brought to justice. Upon finding that the law has mostly given up on tracking him down, Mattie takes matters into her own hands. She sells off her family's horses in order to put a bounty on Chaney's head, and ends up recruiting a reluctant federal marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to find him, dead or alive. Rooster has a rep as the meanest son-of-a-bitch in Arkansas, and it's true - he's killed many a man in his day and is a fearless gunslinger. But, the eyepatch-sporting marshall is also a semi-washed-up drunk. He still harbors dreams of laying down his guns and getting back into the restaurant biz. To that end, he only very reluctantly agrees to help Mattie, and only after a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) explains that the elusive Chaney is also wanted in the Lonestar State, where a much bigger reward awaits the man who can bring him in.

With a cast like this, it almost goes without saying that the acting is in True Grit is phenomenal. It also helps that the Coens - with their textured dialogue and flair for crafting great characters - have a tendency to bring out the best in every actor who appears in their films. Therefore, True Grit is a special event for any fan of the Coens' past works, because it marks the reunion of the brothers with the great Jeff Bridges, who brought to life arguably their greatest character, The Dude, in arguably their greatest and most-loved film, The Big Lebowski. But, hot damn, is Bridges the man or is he the man (or, I suppose, the dude?). It was only last week that I saw the actor acting fairly Dude-like in Tron Legacy, in a fun and ultra-entertaining double performance as that movie's hero and villain. And yet one week later, here's Bridges again, turning in a much different sort of performance as the grizzled Rooster Cogburn. Rooster does have a little of The Dude's world-weary affability on the outside, but look deeper and you find a man who's killed many a man, lived a hard life, loved and lost. A man who uses humor to disguise a deep sorrow that lies within. Bridges owns this part, as expected. And while we all know that last year was his big Oscar moment thanks to his role in Crazy Heart, it would be criminal to therefore overlook this similarly-kickass turn from one of the greats. When you consider that Bridges is currently starring in two movies, playing three parts, each very different, it's an even more amazing achievement.

Matt Damon also does some great work here as LaBoeuf (amusingly pronounced La-Beef). His character is sort of an asshole, but he is nonetheless a dedicated guy who may be Mattie's best hope of tracking down Chaney, given Rooster's increasingly-apparent issues. I do think that LaBoeuf goes from abhorrent to sympathetic a little too easily, but it's no fault of Damon's - this is him bringing his A-game. Still, Josh Brolin is a scene-stealer as Chaney. While his screentime is comparitively brief, he makes a big impact and has some great moments - playing Chaney not as some master uber-outlaw but as a second-rate rogue who had the misfortune of pissing off the wrong fourteen-year-old girl. Seeing Brolin do great things in this movie made we could go and wipe this summer's Jonah Hex movie out of existence and maybe let the Coens take a crack at it - with their now-proven ability to create a great pulp Western, I can only imagine what they could do with the scarred bounty hunter's grim tale. One other real standout is Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned, the leader of a gang of outlaws that Chaney has fallen in with. Pepper plays an awesome villain, and his climactic showdown with Rooster is one of the movie's great scenes.

Of course, I have to talk about Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. It's crazy, because somehow 2010 has been a year of breakout performances from preteen and teenaged girls playing the part of unlikely badass. From Chloe Moretz in Kick Ass, to Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, and now Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. This is yet another true breakout performance, and Hailee is truly great in what is clearly an incredibly demanding role. Not only does Hailee hold her own against the likes of Bridges, Damon, and Brolin, but she manages to make the Coens' precisely-worded, colorfully-scripted dialogue pop off the screen. And the great thing with Mattie is that yes, she does have moments of badassery, but she's more Lisa Simpson than Hitgirl. She tries to remain poised around gunslingers and scoundrels, but she has moments of nervousness, of trepidation, of fear. But through it all, she persists and remains steadfast in her quest. She seeks out Rooster because he is reputed to be a man of "true grit," but it's clear to us that this description applies just as much, if not more, to Mattie.

But back to Rooster for a second ... Rooster is interesting as a character in that he may just be the most sentimental character ever in a Coen Bros. movie. Your typical Coens film exists in a slightly left-of-center place, a neo-noir, sometimes darkly funny world where we seem to be gazing down at these oddball characters from somewhere high above. Coen Bros. films often tell their stories on a nearly cosmic level. Even something like No Country For Old Men becomes less about actual people and more about the Big Themes of good and evil. Suffice it to say, the Coens' films are not exactly known for their big, rousing scenes of heroism, with music swelling and emotion rising as the hero swoops in to save the day. And yet, True Grit has these sorts of scenes, and in Rooster it has a great character who is nonetheless sort of a classic Western hero. In most Coens films, you just let yourself go along for the ride, not really expecting a traditional hero's journey or happy ending. But with Rooster, you really start to root for the guy - he's an iconic character, but he also feels more real, more grounded, than the usual Coen Bros. creation. In most Coens films, you expect the brothers to diverge from a traditional narrative. Their movies tend to end in great storms of nihilistic destruction, and usually, it fits the type of story that the Coens want to tell to a T. And yet, as we entered the third act of True Grit, I felt something unusual for a Coens movie - I wanted a traditional ending, maybe even a happy one. I wanted Rooster to ride off in a blaze of glory and save the day. Because True Grit has great heroes that you can't help but root for. It had Wild West showdowns. It has stirring music. And the Coens seem to embrace all of that, and end up making a much different kind of movie than is usual for them ... almost. I guess that is my main qualm with the movie - it seems slightly torn about what kind of movie it is. Is it a plain-old rousing Western story - a tale of heroes and villains and gunfights and rough justice? Or is it that uniquely Coen Bros. sort of movie - that takes elements of a given genre, and twists them, and places them in a slightly surreal, waking-nightmare world? Let me put it this way - movies like No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man - both stone-cold classics, in my book - have abrupt, jarring endings that work perfectly because they fit the world of the movie, they make sense with these films where it feels like the characters are prisoners of fate. But True Grit's final act felt to me like it didn't quite fit, and it didn't quite leave me satisfied. I know it probably goes against every creative instinct in the Coens' bodies, but I'll just admit ... a more conventional ending might have made sense in this one, given that, despite the stylized dialogue and oddball supporting characters, this is a more conventional movie (and nothing wrong with that per se), overall, than is typical of the Coens.

Still, there are so many great things about True Grit that it's hard to get too hung up on some of the shortcomings of the final act. Like all Coen Bros. films, this is one that will only benefit from being rewatched multiple times. As I said, the dialogue is so textured and rich that I'm sure there was a lot I didn't catch the first time around. But man, there are some great lines in this one - as expected, it's quotable as hell. And the movie is funny. This may not be an out-and-out comedy, but there are little scenes and exchanges in True Grit that make for some of the year's most darkly humorous cinematic moments. I think about a town-square hanging scene that takes place at the beginning of the film, about a great scene where Rooster is being cross-examined in a courtroom by a particularly aggressive lawyer. A great little moment when Rooster is trying to smoke out some low-level thugs from their safehouse, and he demands to know who's inside ... "a methodist, and a son-of-a-bitch" replies one of the outlaws. There's an incredibly funny scene where Rooster and LaBouef engage in a shooting contest. The movie is packed with great dialogue, great imagery - like the strange doctor who happens upon Rooster and Mattie, adorned in a full-on bearskin suit, complete with sharp-toothed head bobbing lifelessly as its wearer rides through the woods on horseback. Meanwhile, the movie's cinematography is just fantastic. The great Roger Deakins is back as the DP, and, as he did in movies like No Country For Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James, he frames the Old-West landscapes for maximum atmospheric effect - drawing us into a world of desolate plains, rolling hills, and dense forests. It helps make True Grit feel like the biggest, most epic film that the Coens have ever directed. In addition, the score is fantastic as well - evocative and mood-setting.

True Grit didn't quite leave me speechless and floored in the same way that Barton Fink, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, or A Serious Man did when I first saw those films. But, I still say that it was one hell of a movie. If nothing else, it's one of the best Westerns of the last several years, and it's further proof that there's seemingly no genre that the Coens can't tackle and make fresh with their unique point of view and storytelling abilities. True Grit also contains some of the best performances of the year - yet another great turn from Jeff Bridges, and a huge breakout role for the young Hailee Steinfeld. And the fact remains that one of the great joys of being a modern movie fan is seeing what the Coen Bros. will come up with next. True Grit is another accomplishment for the brothers, and as always, I can't wait to see what else they have up their sleeves.

My Grade: A-

1 comment:

  1. "Is there anything that the Coen Bros. can't do? When you think about the sheer diversity of their filmography, it's pretty astounding. They've done neo-noirs, screwball comedies, social satire .. and now, with True Grit, you can add classic Western to the list" ; they do it by using the hero's journey; see