Thursday, December 23, 2010
Movie Review: "True Grit"
"Mainstream" and "Coen brothers" do not normally go hand in hand.
True, the directorial duo have had their share of hits with "No Country For Old Men," "Fargo" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou." But they remain most notable for their quirky, dark comedies and edgy thrillers like "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona" and last year's phenomenal "A Serious Man."
The brothers are known for zigging when everyone expects them to zag, which may be why they decided to follow up their intensely personal take on the book of Job with this adaptation of Charles Portis' novel, which was already made into a popular 1969 film famous for winning John Wayne his only Oscar, as hard-drinking Old West bounty hunter Cogburn.
What's not so surprising is that, as they seem to be doing every awards season, the Coen brothers deliver another funny, powerful and highly entertaining movie to close out the year.
Hewing closely to Portis' novel, the film stars newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a young girl looking to avenge her father's murder. Mattie may be young, but watch the way she deals with a local merchant who tries to scam her out of horses; able to barter with the best of them and unwilling to take "no" for an answer, Mattie is wise beyond her years. This is star-making work by young Steinfeld, who delivers one of the finest child performances I've seen.
Ross recruits Cogburn (Bridges), who she first meets while he's being deposed in court. With a patch on one eye and whisky always in his hand, Cogburn is more interested in getting drunk than in helping out a kid. But he agrees to take on Ross' job, although he's less thrilled about bringing her along. Even worse, he's required to team up with cocky Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who was tracking Mattie's target in Texas before getting the slip in Arkansas. The three set out to find the man (Josh Brolin) and bring retribution to him.
While the storyline is likely familiar to those who've seen the original film, the Coens make their telling fresh by sticking closely to Portis' prose, with dialogue that flows poetically, as if contractions were a hanging offense. The Coens have always coupled their visual artistry with a love for language, be it the hippy proclamations of "Lebowski's" Dude, the backwoods poetry of "O Brother" or the political double-speak of "Burn After Reading." Like this year's "The Social Network," here is a film I'd be content to sit and listen to with the picture off, although then I would miss Richard Deakins' marvelous cinematography, which turns every shot of the Old West into a scene worthy of framing.
Bridges' grizzled Cogburn is no hammy, one-note creation, but a man who is both humorous to watch and fearsome to behold. He may be full of adventurous stories and able to give Jack Sparrow a run for his rum, but with a gun in his hand he's quite an intimidating figure. Just a week after Bridges played three versions of himself in the "Tron" sequel, he disappears into this character and proves again why he's one of the most consistent actors working.
In a film full of surprising humor, Damon garners the most laughs with LaBeouf, a character a little too proud of his Ranger status. At first unwilling to help Ross because she's a child and not a beautiful grown woman, LaBeouf strikes up a friendship with the duo that has a surprising heart to it. Brolin and Barry Pepper are also particularly good as the outlaws the group encounters, one of whom is a remorseless killer and the other a scoundrel with some manners. Every supporting character is fully drawn and richly created, a rarity at a time when films are filled with ciphers and stereotypes.
The adventure gets a little intense sometimes, but it's possible the Coen brothers have made their first family film. Anchored by Steinfeld's phenomenal performance, here's a movie that features a child as the hero, and has all the adventure, intrigue and romance of the classic Westerns, told with a love for language, an eye for detail and affection for character that seems to have been lost in recent years.
Joel and Ethan Coen are known for being unpredictable. What's fascinating is how their quirks have led them to create one of the most enjoyable and entertaining films of 2010.
- ▼ December (9)