Friday, January 7, 2011

"True Grit" good and gritty but not great


True Grit (2010)
110 min., rated PG-13
Grade: B +

If you reckon True Grit is just another Western, you be dead wrong. It's truly a Coen Brothers' movie, gritty and fresh you betcha. Joel and Ethan Coen do justice in their reinterpretation of the original source material, Charles Portis' novel, first made on screen in 1969 with John Wayne (earning him his only Oscar) and Kim Darby. 

Relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays 14-year-old Mattie Ross, a precocious, headstrong pioneer girl who travels to Arkansas to collect her pa's body after he's robbed and killed in cold blood by vagabond Tom Chaney. She wants revenge and seeks out the toughest US Marshal she can find. Enter Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed drunkard, whom (as she's heard) has “true grit.” Mattie firmly says she'll pay Cogburn $50, but asks to accompany him to the Indian territory on her horse Little Blackie to find Chaney. 

True Grit has the filmmakers' distinctly deadpan voice amidst the interesting odyssey of storytelling. And the piquant wit still flows with bursts of harsh violence. Just because it's PG-13 doesn't mean it's “Little House on the Prairie.” 

All three actors are stellar and bring their characters to vivid life with color. Rather than showing up The Duke, gravelly-voiced Bridges has a bit of the “Dude” Lebowski still in him as Rooster. He's even more enjoyable here than his damaged Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Matt Damon delightfully puts his own stamp as a cocky Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (that's La Beef, not like Shia) whom joins Mattie and Rooster because he's also after Chaney for shooting a Senator in his home state. 

Steinfeld, in her first feature role, is a discovery. She's persuasive and self-assured, delivering Mattie's mannered language and mature vocabulary with outspoken poise and feistiness. Her Mattie guides the story as narrator and heroine like a female Huck Finn with Dorothy Gale braids. 

Josh Brolin plays Chaney, but he's less threatening than Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper, one of his comrades. 

The other star of the film is its impeccable look, as usual, with the dusty Western cinematography by the helmers' right-hand-man Roger Deakins. The setting is authentic enough to taste and shot in New Mexico and West Texas that it recalls a bit of No Country for Old Men. 

Now the Coens are known for their coldness, but here, they try to move us in the coda with Elizabeth Marvel playing 40-year-old Mattie, and it just doesn't give the kind of catharsis that it should. The showdown with Chaney is also a bit of a letdown, but a fateful set-piece in a cave with skeletons and snakes tensely makes up for it. 

Even if it's less quirky than most of their other work, True Grit is still an ever-stalwart piece of filmmaking that the Coens can call their own.

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