23 December 2010

True Grit

Jeff Bridges, left, and Hailee Steinfeld are shown in a scene from "True Grit."
Whenever I watch a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, I am reminded of what Joss Whedon (creator of the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly," among others) often says of his philosophy toward writing. Paraphrasing, he says every character must have something to say and a reason to be there, and it is important that the audience understands the perspective of each character.

Whether they have ever stated it outright or not, the same goals drive the Coen brothers. There are no insignificant characters in their latest picture, "True Grit," and everyone who appears adds something to the movie, even if they wander through only one scene before moving on.

The Coens' movie is not so much a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film, for which the Duke won his only Oscar, as it is a new adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis. So even though the story is an older one and known to many, "True Grit" 2010 is readily recognizable as the Coens' work, incorporating their signature quirky characters and humor against the backdrop of a classic Western. It's even something of a crowd-pleaser, a first for the idiosyncratic brothers.

Much of the attention has gone to Jeff Bridges, an Oscar-winner himself for last year's "Crazy Heart" and the star of the Coens' cult classic "The Big Lebowski" (1998). Here, he steps into Wayne's boots as aging, drunken, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. And he's a hoot as the ornery, blustery old coot, who, despite his line of work, has drifted from one side of the law to the other, yet still retains his own code of honor and morality. He's a man of "true grit," we are told.

It's also hard not to take notice of Matt Damon as LaBoeuf (pronounced "la-BEEF"), a preening Texas Ranger possessed of a healthy dose of grit of his own.

Then there's Josh Brolin, whose breakout role came in the Coens' "No Country for Old Men" (2007), nearly unrecognizable as the murderous Tom Chaney.

But the one who carries the movie is the one you've never heard of at all. It's newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose 14-year-old Mattie Ross hires Cogburn to hunt down her father's killer, Chaney. Tough as they come and wise beyond her years, Mattie's grit might be the truest of all. Steinfeld makes it look easy as she holds her own with the heavyweights around her, navigating her way through the script's formal, flowery dialogue. Mattie's early confrontation with Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), haggling with him over money she feels she's due, establishes how formidable she is and the Coens' obvious delight in the language of the day. Though there is plenty of Western-style action, it's the dialogue that brings the film to life.

"True Grit" is the best of both worlds: a classic Western and classic Coen brothers.

Greg's Grade: A

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