Movie Review: True Grit

Coming into “True Grit” with only cursory knowledge of the original film and a preconceived notion about what the Coen brothers might do with the source material, I was surprised and pleased to discover their interpretation was funny, fierce and free of artifice – a straightforward Western done with panache and anchored by solid acting performances.

Of course, the original “True Grit” was the apex of John Wayne’s career, an iconic role for The Duke in life and death. So, it’s only fitting that The Dude steps into his shoes and knocks the role out of the park. Jeff Bridges has been on a remarkable run of late, and his portrayal of the gruff, grizzled Rooster Cogburn is the heart of the film – the part could have easily veered into camp, but Bridges delivers the Coen’s wry putdowns with the correct amount of weariness and anger.

And while Cogburn is the character most identified with the movie, the story actually revolves around 14-year-old Mattie Ross, the firebrand of a young woman whose mission it is to avenge her father’s death at the hands of a two-bit criminal. Somehow, the Coens found a ringer in neophyte actress Hailee Stanfield, who will surely ride her big break to an Oscar nomination thanks to an amazingly assured performance.

When Mattie receives news of her father’s murder, she travels to Fort Smith, Ark. to bring the killer, hired hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) to justice. With little help from the local authorities, she turns to U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn to help track Chaney through dangerous Indian territory and bring him back to be hanged.

While Cogburn’s reputation is strong, he’s also a mess – a drunkard reduced to sleeping in the back of a Chinese grocery store. Mattie is persuasive, and her $50 fee doesn’t hurt, so Cogburn swings into action to help bring in Chaney. But there’s another man on the trail – Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon) – who wants to capture Chaney and bring him back to Texas for his own reward.

Eventually, this mismatched trio heads off into the wild and their pursuit of Chaney – in addition to their relationships with each other – make up the majority of the film. While the humor of the novel has allegedly been excised, the film is still filled with funny lines, as Cogburn and LeBoeuf bicker with each other.

I’ve got to tell you, I spent a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop. After all, we’re talking about the Coens, who have rarely followed the straight path throughout their entire filmmaking career. But here, it seems as if they set out to lovingly recreate a Western, and that’s it. So, the film follows the standard narrative arc, with betrayal, redemption and most importantly, no crazy ending.

Bridges and Damon do fine work, but I found myself continually drawn to Stanfield, who tackles a role that very few young actresses could handle, and does with aplomb, holding her own against veterans of the trade. Think about how every teenager on film is portrayed by someone in their twenties, and to see this real-life 13-year-old deliver the stylized, arch language of her character without flinching is truly impressive.

Bridges may not become the iconic Cogburn that Wayne was, but that’s primarily because Bridges has so many other solid performances on his resume. Still, he brings a rumpled, ragged presence to the role that makes his Cogburn much more than a Wayne impersonation and this film much more than your average remake.

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~ by Elliott on January 4, 2011.

One Response to “Movie Review: True Grit”

  1. Agreed, agreed, agreed.

    Just say this the other day under pretty much similar circumstances (never actually seen the original and I didn’t know/had forgotten that this was Wayne’s Oscar) and had a really nice day at the movies.

    You’re right about Bridges — he really could have descended into parody there but he never really did. (Flirted with it, maybe.) Damon was good too, especially sandwiched between the other two.

    But yeah, Stanfield was damn, damn good. She could easily have been the wise-cracking miniature adult that kids in these roles so often become. But no way, not even close. She inhabited that role completely and never ever took you out the movie with even a second of unconvincing delivery of that crazy dialogue. She’s gotta get an Oscar nomination for that…

    You have to wonder what an old vet like Bridges was thinking playing alongside her. He had to be pretty blown away, I’d think.

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