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TRUE GRIT
(****)

Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Joel & Ethan Coen
Written by:
Screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, adapted from novel: "True Grit" by Charles Portis
Starring:
Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin,
Running time:
110 minutes
Released:
12/22/10
Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images.
"... the visuals are a vast improvement, but they also keep the film rooted in outdated nostalgia, rather than unbound creativity."

The first time the Coen brothers did a remake, they made some basic mistakes. They chose a film—“The Ladykillers”—that was a classic. And they altered it in unfortunate ways that compounded the problems. This time, they avoid those errors. The 1969 version of “True Grit,” best known for John Wayne’s Oscar-winning turn as Rooster Cogburn, the marshal who helps a fourteen-year old girl track down her father’s killer, isn’t really a great movie, and it captures little of what makes Charles Portis’ novel such an enduring work. By contrast the Coens’ adaptation is far more faithful to the book than Henry Hathaway’s was, and on that basis alone is vast improvement on the earlier picture. It’s much more than that, however; it’s one of the year’s best films, an “old” western that can be mentioned in the same breath as the directors’ “contemporary” one, their Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men”—even if it’s not quite in that class.

The plot remains simple: after her father is killed by his temp employee Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) on a horse-buying trip, intrepid young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires gruff, one-eyed, alcoholic Marshal Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track him down. She insists on going along with him into Indian territory, and they're joined by Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who’s been chasing Chaney for a year on another murder charge. Along the way the three bicker, separate and join up again, in the process dealing with a variety of desperadoes before catching up to Chaney and the gang he’s hooked up with—leading to one confrontation between Mattie and Chaney, and another between Cogburn and the other members of the gang.

The Coens’ script not only follows Portis’ book closely but captures the special quality of his dialogue, particularly in the narration by Mattie, which mirrors her tough but precise and formal mode of speech, but also in the florid lines delivered by the other characters, which manage a
lovely blend of the coarse and the surprisingly erudite. Mattie’s conversations early on with Dakin Matthews, playing a businessman she haggles with over her father’s affairs, are a brilliant example of how perfectly they’ve caught the novel’s tone, but the different voices they give to Cogburn and LaBeouf—including shafts of brusque, deadpan humor—as well as the lesser characters, are equally captivating. Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen preserve the spare tone and stilted formality of language in Charles Portis' slim 1968 novel to craft a tale of frontier justice that is equal parts "Deadwood" and Dickens.

Of course, all that wouldn’t matter much if the cast didn’t deliver on the promise of the script, but they do. One would expect as much of Bridges, whose boisterous, larger-than life embodiment of Cogburn stands high against the memory of Wayne, and Damon, who cannily manages to convey the ranger’s combination of theatricality, arrogance, naivete and courage. (He, of course, has far less competition from the original film's Glen Campbell.) Bridges, unlike Wayne who's Cogburn was simply Wayne being Wayne, disappears into the character so completely that we do not see Bridges. What we see is a deep, rich portrayal of a complicated man. But young Steinfeld is a revelation as the iron-willed Mattie, holding her own against not only them but Brolin, who’s scraggily odious as Chaney, and Barry Pepper, as the brutish but oddly honorable outlaw he teams with. Matthews, along with the other members of the supporting cast, have been chosen with care and respond beautifully to the material.

Of course, the film has the impeccable visuals one has come to expect from a Coen product. Cinematographer Roger Deakins uses the craggy, windswept locales with his customary skill, creating compositions that have the look of Western art. One won’t soon forget the images he manages during a nighttime ride toward the picture’s close, in which the stars in the dark sky have a surrealistic cast. (Surely this sequence, coupling the shots with Carter Burwell’s evocative score, which employs the strains of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” is intended as a homage to “The Night of the Hunter.”) In fact, all the technical aspects of “True Grit” exhibit the technical perfection that’s become a hallmark of the brothers’ work: production designer Jess Gunchor, art directors Christy Wilson and Stefan Dechant, set decorator Nancy Haigh and costume designer Mary Zophres all deserve the highest praise.

Fans of Portis’ book should be pleased that it’s finally received the screen treatment it so richly deserves; even those who remember the 1969 picture affectionately should find this one a great improvement; and newcomers who know neither will be blown away again by the Coen brothers’ sheer mastery of the medium. Whatever camp you fall into, “True Grit” is a genuine triumph for all concerned and one of the years best films.

TRUE GRIT © 2010 Paramount Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2010 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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