Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Sometimes, filmmakers put together something that is so strong, so perfect, so abundantly great that they make it look easy, and you wonder why everyone making movies can't produce something this close to flawless. Ethan and Joel Coen's TRUE GRIT is just such a film, an effortless work of perfection that captures a sense of place and period so convincingly that you are taken aback by how effortless it all seems. The Coens haven't always reached this level of moviemaking, but they do so with alarming regularity with such works as BLOOD SIMPLE, MILLER'S CROSSING, BARTON FINK, FARGO, and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Now, if I didn't name your favorite Coen Brothers movie, it's not because I didn't like it. But in all of their other films, I could see them trying maybe a little too hard. Nothing wrong with that, but when I stumble upon one of these five films (and TRUE GRIT will be added to the list) on a movie channel, it gets watched to the end because I don't even notice the time passing.
I love that the Coens decided to make a much better adaptation of Charles Portis' novel than the 1969 version starring John Wayne. I don't despise the original TRUE GRIT at all, but it's never been a favorite of mine. I can't remember if it was Roger Ebert or Gene Siskel who said it first, but they were always perplexed when someone remade a classic movie. Why not remake a bad movie and make it better, they wondered. That's not exactly what has happened here, but it's damn close.
True Grit is not the story of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, haven shaken off the CGI glitter of last week's TRON: LEGACY), a drunken, worn-down U.S. Marshall hired by a child to find the man who killed her father. All of that surely happens, but if you go in thinking Cogburn is the focus of the film, you've been misinformed. In fact, it's the young girl Mattie Ross (the magnificent newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) who sits at the center of this story as all manner of lawman and villain cross her path in the search for the outlaw Tom Chaney (a weirdly affected performance by Josh Brolin). Mattie has come to town to ship her father's body back home to her mother and take care of his affairs, which in her mind includes finding his killer.
At one point in the film, someone refers to Mattie as "the bookkeeper" of her father's business, and with that little throwaway line, we understand that Mattie is the brains of her family. Steinfeld's performance sometimes makes you forget to breathe. Her enunciative delivery is unlike any I have ever seen from an actor her age. And she easily matches wits and intellect with everyone she comes into contact with, whether it's a business transaction that requires some expert haggling or she is working out a fair arrangement with Marshall Cogburn. I am in no way knocking the performance Bridges gives at all. The first time we see him clearly, he's testifying in court about men he killed, and it's one of the funniest things I've seen all year due exclusively to his deft delivery.
The third member of the small posse out seeking Chaney is a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (pronounced La-Beef and played with an odd tint by Matt Damon). More than once during the course of the story, we get the distinct impression that LaBoeuf might be coming onto Mattie, but strangely enough it doesn't feel as creepy as it sounds. Instead, we get the sense that the Ranger comes from a place where girls Mattie's age are getting married to men his age, so he doesn't even consider him looking at her in that way inappropriate. Other times, he treats her like the child that she is, especially when she lets her emotions get in the way of the mission at hand.
I saw TRUE GRIT twice in the space of a couple of days, and it wasn't until the second viewing that I really noticed some of the small moments that accented the more obviously skillful tactics at hand. The Coens' screenplay is one of their best, with small touches in the language that are both period specific and just damn fine wordsmith-ing. There are almost-unnoticeable ways in which the characters pronounce certain words that I loved. Notice the way Damon says "Adios," and try not smiling.
And gradually over the course of this fine story, you begin to realize that it is not about finding the bad guys; it's about the very real bond that forms between Cogburn and Mattie. We get more than one scene where Cogburn is just running at the mouth about his life, failed marriage, and all of the other things that had plagued him over the years. Sure, it's humorous, but it's also the stuff that friendships are built upon. In a strange way, when they finally do cross paths with Chaney, it's a rude and unwelcome reminder that there's a mission at hand and that now all of this enjoyable conversation must end.
Turns out Chaney is running with a gang run by Lucky Ned Pepper (an almost unrecognizable Barry Pepper), who turns out to be one of the most interesting characters in TRUE GRIT. He seems like an outlaw with whom logic and reason are two of his most skilled weapons. Lucky Ned doesn't really come into play until the final act, but when he does, other facets to Cogburn emerge that continue taking us by surprise, and each time that happens, you love the man just a little bit more. And while you're at it, watch how brilliantly Brolin plays Chaney. He's slow on an intellectual level, but if you give him enough time to let the gears turn slowly in his brain, he's capable of making some damn smart choices
TRUE GRIT is sheer joy for film lovers, from Roger Deakins striking cinematography to Carter Burwell's lovely score to each and every perfectly cast extra whose dusty, sunken faces add character and authenticity to every scene. The Coens have always excelled at selecting the perfect faces for every role--big and small. The story is hardly a complicated one to follow, but there is so much going on in every scene that it takes two or three viewings to really soak it all in, which I was happy to do. Even sequences that seem like throwaway moments are loaded with character development, especially the squabbles between Rooster and LaBoeuf about the reputation of Texas Rangers vs. Cogburn's own flawed past. Just writing about TRUE GRIT makes me want to go see it again just to make sure I'm not forgetting any of its glory. If you are even questioning at this point whether or not you want to see this movie, I have nothing more to say to you until you make the right call.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Me On Twitter