True Grit (2010) Review

(3.5 STARS)

If the Coen Brothers’ trademark is unpredictable and unexpected, True Grit is another solidly Coen-esque film. Why? Because it’s such a straight-forward well-told Western that we keep waiting around for some standard Coen twists and turns. But they don’t arrive. I didn’t have a problem with that per se, but it did surprise me. Still, even if this isn’t the most surprising film of 2010, it’s a beautiful, old-fashioned yarn, filled with splendid performances from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld and the incomparable Jeff Bridges.

The film is a remake of the 1969 film that gave John Wayne his only Oscar. Wayne’s role, as U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, is filled by Bridges. Rooster is the meanest Marshall around, shooting first, asking questions later. He’s a big drinker and has enough bizarre stories to shock anyone. He’s approached by Maddie Ross (Steinfeld), a strong-willed 14-year-old, to help her hunt down her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Rooster reluctantly agrees, though he wants Maddie to stay home. It will be a long, arduous journey, and he feels more comfortable in the company of no-nonsense Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). But Maddie isn’t one to take “No” for an answer. She tracks down the two men and proves to be a valuable asset in the hunt for Chaney.

True Grit is nothing without its two brilliantly realized main characters. Rooster’s rough, gruff personality isn’t at all a show. He really doesn’t care about Maddie’s plight at the outset of their journey, but he grows to care about her as she proves her worth. She, on the other hand, is so determined that we can’t help but root for her. The directors present a number of scenes early on that help us connect with Maddie immediately (the bartering scene might be the film’s best). And she doesn’t show a single sign of weakness throughout the film. She’s one of 2010’s strongest, most memorable film heroes.

And as well developed as these characters are, they are nothing without such strong actors. Jeff Bridges is as good as ever (even though he’s hard to understand at times). His comedic timing is perfect, and he never oversells his bond with Maddie. There’s not really a father/daughter thing going on like you might expect. It’s more a relationship of mutual respect. Hailee Steinfeld, on the other hand, is a revelation. Holding your own with the likes of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon (who’s very good here, as well) is no easy task, but to do so in your first major film role is nothing short of astonishing. She’s fierce and tough and rarely shows the vulnerability of your average 14-year-old.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, either, that the technical work on the film is fantastic. The cinematography, by frequent Coens collaborator Roger Deakins, is beautiful. The visual splendor if the old West is enhance by every unique camera angle and movement (the best of which comes near the end, as Rooster and Maddie ride together in a very old-fashioned shot). The costumes are spot-on, and the editing is very strong (especially during the film’s climax).

I’m deliberately unfamiliar with the 1969 version of True Grit (I wanted to judge this one on its own merits before visiting the original), but from what I understand, this one is darker and a bit closer to the novel upon which the two films are based. That being said, this one is still punctuated by moments of laugh-out-loud humor, and it’s story is ultimately one of consequence and justice. It’s not groundbreaking or innovative filmmaking, but it’s a rare remake that earns its stripes with great direction and fine performances.

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