Although Hollywood rarely coughs up the costs required to make them, there seems to be a strong appetite for the Western genre. The few that do get made (well, the good ones, anyway -- think The Proposition, not Jonah Hex) generally find themselves awash in critical praise, while frontier stories get eaten up in other mediums (Red Dead Redemption, for instance). Most of these films capitalize on the brutal, kill-or-be-killed, outlaw justice aspects of the era, but The Coen Brothers offer their remake of True Grit as an almost family-friendly antidote to that kind of tone. It may not be a shocking powerhouse like No Country For Old Men, but it boasts a strong, Coenesque sense of humor and great comraderie from a talented cast.
Following the unjust murder of her father, Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) travels to the city to take care of the body, as well as wrapping up some "unfinished business". To her mother (never seen), this certainly means nothing more than gathering his belongings and trying to recoup a bit of losses over some horses the late Mr. Ross was selling, but for Mattie, it means hiring a lone gunman and tracking her father's killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) down. Queries around town lead Mattie to Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a cantankerous, one-eyed Federal Marshal, already on trial for gunning down an entire family of criminals (not all at once), who is taken aback by her request. When she places cash on the barrelhead, he finally gives in, but he is unprepared for her insistence on heading into the mountains as well, right by his side.
From the trailers, it's easy to go in wondering if Bridges is due another Oscar nomination, hot off his win for Crazy Heart, but one will likely walk out thinking only of Steinfeld, whose debut performance is the riveting center around which the entire film is set. At once commanding, innocent, and clever, Steinfeld makes Mattie into a force to be reckoned with, whether it's bargaining for the aforementioned horse money back, or standing between Rooster and their unexpected accompaniment, a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (pronounced LaBeef) who's been tracking Chaney since long before his encounter with Mattie's father. Between LaBoeuf's non-stop chatter (one of Damon's most enjoyable performances to date), Mattie's bossy attitude, and Rooster's bemused gruffness, the trio form a very funny banter that lasts throughout the entire picture. Again, the trailers may paint a No Country-esque picture, but the film is mostly a comedy, choosing to ratchet the tension up full throttle in only a select few scenes.
Which is not to say Bridges is slacking; more that his character is a slow boil. The film takes its time with the characters, allowing plenty of time for the trio to develop before getting around to plot business (Brolin, for instance, doesn't show up in person until the third act). Bridges plays Rooster as a man whose glory days are behind him without the courage to admit it, rattling non-stop stories off to Mattie without stopping to see if she's even paying attention (those looking for any Dude-isms will find none in his gravvelly-voiced take). At first, it seems like little more than a frill, something for the actor to chew on and the audience to enjoy in equal measure, but near the end of the movie, all of that building comes into play in a beautiful sequence where Rooster fully invests.
On one hand, True Grit feels more like a snack for the Coens rather than a four-course meal, occasionally coming off like they've grafted their sensibilities onto a studio-sanctioned remake rather than crafted something with personal stakes. On the other, there's Steinfeld, Damon and Bridges, forming one of the most appealing on-screen teams in years. True Grit may be a bit of a minor chord in the Coen Brothers' filmography, but don't let that keep you away: it's performed and directed by a group of professionals working together like a well-oiled machine, and more importantly, a vivid, heartfelt dose of Western spirit that should tide fans over until the next one rides into town.
Note: True Grit marks yet another notch in the uselessness of the PG-13 rating, packing in headshots, corpses, and even severed appendages, complete with blood. The moments graphic but also fairly brief, yet more violent than anything I've previously seen in a PG-13 movie.
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