January 9, 2010
True Grit (2010) ***1/2
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
True Grit (2010)- Solid story told well, acted well and shot well. Sadly, though, this is a huge step down for the Coens. ***1/2 out of 5
I'm conflicted about whether or not it's appropriate to compare this version of True Grit to first of all, the original version, and second, to the Coen Brothers' previous films. I've come to the conclusion that it's okay to mention those other films, but when it comes to True Grit's overall success or failure, I really ought to look at it autonomously. To put it another way--I like the 1969 version of True Grit slightly better than this one, and this is my least favorite Coen Brothers film that I've seen so far. Yet, I don't think I've given any Coen Brothers film I've reviewed on this blog any less than four and a half stars, and the 1969 True Grit received four stars, so there's still quite a bit of room for this film to still be considered a good movie even if it doesn't equal these comparisons.
This time around, the Coens try to remain faithful to the religiosity and the dark humor of the original novel by Charles Portis which was slightly lost in the 1969 film. Both similarly tell the tale of young Mattie Ross, a teenager who is seeking revenge on Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father in a drunken rage and has now escaped to Indian Territory. Far from home, she cleverly acquires the money necessary to hire U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed drunk known for being trigger happy much more than he's known for his people skills. Also pursuing Tom Chaney for his involvement in the murder of a senator is a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf. The three make an unconventional trio as they try and follow the trail of Chaney and his men.
There are a few marginally deep questions about the consequences of choosing violent revenge, but beyond that, there's very little to chew on besides what is ultimately a pretty shallow slice of western pulp entertainment. Wayne made Cogburn into a deeply flawed hero with quite a bit of masculine gravitas, similar to pretty much every other character Wayne tackled. Jeff Bridges makes Rooster much more real, letting the heroics of his actions speak for themselves. Both Wayne and Bridges are equally effective in different ways. However, by the end of the 1969 version, the film completely belongs to John Wayne. This time around, Bridges works well with co-stars Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon, ultimately sharing ownership of a tale about relationships as much as it is about action and adventure.
Damon is infinitely more interesting than Glen Campbell, who gave a wet noodle of a performance back in 69. Yet, the break out star of True Grit seems to be young Steinfeld. Many are talking of an Oscar nomination for her role as Mattie Ross. I will say that she's quite a step up from Kim Darby, and she's very good considering her age and the fact that this is her first film role. That being said, she's not as good as Bridges or Damon. Ultimately Mattie is slightly two-dimensional as a character--extremely intelligent and quite confident beyond her years. Steinfeld commands her character's charisma, which is vital considering that she's able to manipulate the adults around her in order to get what she wants. Beyond that, though, there's not much to Steinfeld's performance that really supports the internal struggles of her character at the heart of the conflict within the plot.
The first act is infinitely better than the 1969 version. The Coens consistently cut abruptly in these scenes, providing a forward momentum which seamlessly transitions into the thrust of the adventure that follows. We're not given any more than we need to know, allowing the characters to mount their horses and actually get down to business a lot faster. Roger Deakins once again provides gorgeous cinematography similar to his work in No Country for Old Men. The ending, which is much more faithful to the novel than the 69 version, is certainly interesting, though there's not quite enough deep questions posed before it to really support its philosophical heft.
All of the Coen Brothers films that I've seen have been at least near masterpieces, often hitting many different notes at the same time. They're funny and brutal and challenging at once. True Grit has a few laughs and a few moments of well choreographed violence, but it fails to challenge its audience. This is a well-told, well-directed tale, but beyond that, there's really little else of note. True Grit is a really nice slice of entertainment just as the 1969 version was as well. That one seemed to embrace its superficiality a lot more than this one, which gave it an element of charm that's lacking in the Coens' direction. I don't have a problem with the Coens doing a straightforward film every once in a while, but they're capable of greatness. I suppose it's a little disappointing when they're willing to settle for goodness.