20 February 2011

Movie Review: True Grit (2010)


True Grit
2010, 110mins, 15
Director (s): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writer (s): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Charles Portis (novel)
Cast includes: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
UK Release Date: 11th February 2011

The Western has never been my favorite genre, a fact that might go some way to explaining why I’m unfamiliar with 1969’s “True Grit”. A certifiable classic in some cinematic circles, the original movie was directed by Henry Hathaway and featured one of John Wayne’s most iconic performances. Now over 40 years later the Coen Brothers attempt to have their way with the material, forging an unusually linear film in the process. Well for them that is. “True Grit” circa 2010 is definitely an entertaining and solidly rendered beast, bolstered by some terrific performances, but is perhaps a little too obvious and anticlimactic to be regarded as a major Coen highlight.

After her father is slain by outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is keen to bring justice upon the cowardly killer. Mattie turns to a local sheriff and general ruffian Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) for help, the alcoholic lawman initially reluctant to lend a hand. However after Mattie makes a generous financial offer, Rooster is persuaded, he and the young girl headed deep into dangerous Indian territory in search of Chaney. However complicating matters is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) a cocky Texas Ranger also on the lookout for Chaney, intending to bring him back for crimes other than the murder of Mattie’s father. LaBoeuf simply wants Chaney in order to claim a hefty reward, a fact that disrupts Mattie’s plans for good old fashioned retribution.

Hailee Steinfeld is superb in “True Grit”, the youthful and (almost completely) inexperienced actress handing in a dominatingly intelligent turn as Mattie Ross. Even against veterans like Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin she holds her own fantastically. She is both strong and memorable, her high standard of acting collaborating nicely with the efficient script to form an impressive breakout performance. As Cogburn Bridges provides exactly what you’d expect, a turn steeped in aggression and dark humor. It never surprises, but it is unquestionably effective work from a legitimately great actor. Matt Damon fills the film’s lightest role; LaBoeuf often used as a primer for comic relief, yet the Oscar nominated actor deserves credit for making a potential creep halfway likable. It’s not a performance of much depth, but it’s bunged with a genuine sense of fun. Josh Brolin has barely any screen time as Chaney, but in fairness still makes the villain standout during his few brief scenes. Certainly any qualms I might have with “True Grit” can’t be sourced to the quality of acting present, everyone honoring their various roles to at least a moderate degree.

The story is simplistic but involving, occasionally enriched via bursts of the offbeat comedy we’ve come to expect from the Coens. There are few filmmakers daring enough to play a hanging sequence for a laugh, but in “True Grit” this happens within the first act. However for the most part “True Grit” is less about its directors and more about staying true to genre style; had some of the odder comic elements been abandoned then it would be hard to identify this remake as a Coen product. The narrative is driven by a powerful thirst for revenge rather than the inventive plot developments found in pictures such as “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo”. “True Grit” is very possibly the most generic motion picture the Coen Brothers have thus far produced, well made and undoubtedly enjoyable, but unlikely to attain the same sort of cult appeal that much of their previous work has deservedly garnered.

The cinematography supplied by Roger Deakins is phenomenal, granting “True Grit” the organic Western feel its script so obviously demands. The landscapes are beautifully shot, Deakins injecting as much life into proceedings as any other component of the feature. The musical score courtesy of Carter Burwell isn’t as remarkable, but it adequately fills its respective void during the picture’s quieter and more visually stimulating moments. Most of the set-pieces in “True Grit” are well executed, in particular a tense nighttime shootout involving all of the main protagonists. However whilst the finale builds itself up to a roar, the end result is more of a whimper. Naturally the Coens tack on a mournful and oddly appropriate epilogue to conclude the picture, but the final showdown with Chaney and his band of misfits isn’t really up to snuff. Given the momentum evidenced for much of the movie’s opening sections, it’s somewhat disappointing to see the Coens conclude the tale on such a perfunctory and unspectacular note.

“True Grit” is on the whole a gratifying endeavor; it’s flawlessly performed, relatively witty and more often exciting than not. Still, it lacks the same personality and scale as their 2007 Western epic “No Country for Old Men”, or the unparalleled creativity evidenced in some of their more notable motion pictures. I have no problems with recommending “True Grit”, but I’d be lying if I heralded it as an unforgettable piece of work. It’s a very good film, but not as striking as some might anticipate.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011


Portugal said...

I love the Coen Brothers' movies. This one wasted Matt Damon...didn't give him enough to do. Bridges should have cut the beard in half, talked in a normal voice and bought a better eye patch. The girl is incredible. That said, go see the original and judge for yourself which is better.

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