Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In Theaters: True Grit (2010)

True Grit poster and IMPAwards link
A quick word in advance; I have not seen the original film version of TRUE GRIT, nor have I read the novel both films are based on. I intend to do both at some point, probably. This puts me in the rare position of being able to judge this film, the latest from the Coen Brothers, on its own merits.

One thing that needs to be said about the Coens is that they know when to use a light touch. TRUE GRIT is a film of subtle moments in between violence and vengeance, and it’s deceptively straightforward, much like the classic Westerns where the artistry of a John Ford or Howard Hawks was made to look easy. We’ve got a good story, great actors, convincing surroundings and all the basic components of a good film, without obvious flourishes of style. But the film is more than the sum of its parts, and the alchemy of it is hard to define.

TRUE GRIT is the story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl whose father has been murdered by a shifty cowhand named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). After some negotiations she scrounges up enough money to hire the services of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a drunken, one-eyed killer who is ruthless enough to pursue Chaney into the nearby Choctaw territories. She trusts that he has the titular grit, but not so much that she doesn’t insist on accompanying him. Also after Chaney is a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), out to collect a reward since Chaney shot a state senator over a dog. They enter a near uninhabited land, with precious few Choctaw but a number of bandits and ruthless killers, mostly led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper.)

As Rooster, Bridges is strangely charming; there’s little about the character that’s endearing, but he feels like an authentic veteran, used to treating life cheaply. Rooster has a magnetism, a presence that you like, and though it’s a while before we see him actually shoot anyone, we never doubt that he’s good at what he does. Steinfeld, a rodeo worker, is a remarkable find; she inhabits her character in a way rarely seen with an actress her age, ever serious, ever dedicated. Brolin, Damon, Pepper, and others round out a superb cast (and seeing DAY OF THE DEAD’s Jarlath Conroy pop up as an undertaker was a nice surprise.)

In the acting, as in other areas of the film, there’s a delicate balance. Rooster is comical at times, but never so much that we don’t believe he’s deadly. Damon as LaBoeuf comes across at first like a creep, but is allowed to grow a certain dignity. Brolin’s Chaney is pathetic but still frightening. And Steinfeld in particular keeps her performance on such an even keel that we never catch her “acting”; we are engaged by her sheer dedication, not through any flourishes.

The same attitude applies to much of the film. The visuals have been lightly desaturated and given hints of color adjustment, but not to such an extreme that it feels artificial. (A predominant hue is a nice pale green, of a kind we don’t see often enough.) The violence is swift and straightforward, the music and camerawork both dedicated but not obvious. Even as the gritty, realistic approach to the Western goes, the film doesn’t overindulge- we’re getting a story, not a portrait of frontier America.

All of the above sounds like it should result in a fairly bland, middle of the road picture. But it’s not that the movie lacks artistry; it’s that the artistry is almost deliberately hard to notice. It gets out of the way just enough for the basic narrative drive of Mattie’s quest for justice to sweep us up, and that story in turn finds ways to reveal its own hidden depths. It ends up being about more than just if one hopeless criminal gets what’s coming to him.

I might actually be in a better position to examine all the film’s merits if I were more familiar with the source, or the John Wayne picture for that matter. But it’s clear to me that a Western of this quality and character, without excessive grandeur or excessive wallowing in the muck, with a strong story and more beneath its surface, is what the genre needs. It will attract attention because it’s the latest from two very good filmmakers and because of Bridges’ incredible performance, but there are all manner of things to take from it.

Based on the novel by Charles Portis
Written and Directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen

Grade: A

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