Wednesday, January 19, 2011

True Grit

The Coen Brothers’ True Grit isn’t a remake of the John Wayne classic (1969) but rather a second film adaptation of the 1968 novel. I haven’t read the novel, though I’m told that this latest version adheres more closely to it. Regardless, I can tell you that True Grit is aptly named. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) has true grit, the dialogue has grit, the violence has grit, and lead character Mattie Ross (played by 13 year-old Hailee Steinfeld) has more grit than any of ‘em.

Mattie Ross seeks justice against Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. She hires U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn after hearing of his ruthlessness. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) tags along as he has already been tracking Chaney for other crimes. The unlikely trio heads into uncharted Indian Country (modern-day Oklahoma) in pursuit of Chaney, and the mission quickly turns dangerous with rugged terrain, harsh weather, and a plethora of gunfights.

When John Wayne played Rooster Cogburn in 1969, he had his entire career and image behind him. We believed he was a weathered, tough cowboy because he was John Wayne, and we had seen his previous work. Jeff Bridges isn’t usually associated with tough-guy roles, but he sells his role in True Grit with gusto. He walks and talks like a drunk, mumbling his lines and pulling his gun out over minor disputes. He makes Rooster Cogburn his own, which is about all you can do when someone like John Wayne has played (and won an Oscar for) the same role previously. All other performances are strong, especially Hailee Steinfeld as the lead. A lesser actress would have overplayed the part into caricature, but Steinfeld is believably spirited and tough, and she holds her own in the company of established talents.

The dialogue is purposeful and engaging, as is all Coen Brothers dialogue. The first half hour is composed almost entirely of character work, but once the characters hit the trail, the true grit begins. Every so often, a quick burst of intense violence will make you wish you had looked away. There isn’t a whole lot of violence in the movie, but what little there is doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Usually, the movie gives you a two-to-three second warning before gunshot wounds, stabbings, and other such unpleasantries appear.

There’s more in the acting and the setting than there is in the plot. This version has a more compelling story than the 1969 original because it shifts the focus to Mattie Ross (who narrates the tale), but the overall story is still lacking something. Again, I haven’t read the novel, but neither film version fully pulled me into the narrative. The performances all but make up for it, and the scenery is understated but beautiful. The score, equal parts lovely and sad, is based largely on classic hymns, most notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.”

At its core, True Grit is a simple western, and it’s done very well. The Coens have made a traditional, rough-around-the-edges cowboy picture, and it would appeal to just about anyone who enjoys the western genre. It isn’t nearly as eccentric as most Coen movies, but the often humorous dialogue and memorable side characters carry the mark of Joel and Ethan’s writing and directing. I admire the Coens for their obvious devotion to the source material and to the genre, as well as for knowing better than to try and fix what’s not broken. True Grit doesn’t bring a whole lot of innovation to the table, but that’s a good thing.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images.

To be honest, I was floored to learn (after seeing the movie) that True Grit is rated PG-13. Read the MPAA’s content warning; does that sound like a PG-13 movie to you? It’s very intense, including gunshot wounds to the head, knifes to the chest, and most memorably, severed fingers. No, I’m not talking about implied violence; I mean you actually see a knife blade sever a man’s fingers. As far as taking your kids goes, I would treat this more like an R-rated movie. It’s pretty rough at times.

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