Sunday, December 26, 2010

Film Review | True Grit (2010)

No Country for Young Women

by Thomas Delapa

True Grit may not be reckoned a great movie, but it does have a fistful of great scenes—and all of them with young Hailee Steinfeld, sitting tall in the saddle in the Coen brothers’ sprightly Western remake. As a 14-year-old pigtailed whippersnapper hell-bent on revenge, Steinfeld nearly lassos the picture right from under marquee stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.

Old-timers will recollect that John Wayne bagged a Best Actor Oscar for the original 1969 oater, based on Charles Portis’ gem of a novella. As boozy U.S. marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, the Duke himself had a sharp female foil in Kim Darby, playing the part of the headstrong Mattie Ross out to avenge the murder of her father.

Youngins expecting either a blackly comic or tongue-in-cheek treatment from the brothers Joel and Ethan (Fargo, No Country for Old Men), will be mighty disappointed. Neither bloody nor simple, this is truly an homage, not to any one star in particular, but to the classic Western as whole, from its rugged, wide-screen vistas to the old-school sense of morality and violent retribution.

“There is nothing free except the grace of God,” is how Mattie commences to narrate her neo-biblical quest in the valley of the shadow of death, otherwise known as the Old West. True Grit rises to the heights when it most closely follows the trail of Portis’ language, a richly idiosyncratic blend of colorful prose and quaint 19th-century regionalisms. The “pitiless man who loves to pull a cork” is none other than the ornery, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, sought out by Mattie to make good on her vendetta. The lowdown varmint they’re after is Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), rumored to be hiding out with “Lucky” Ned Pepper and his gang.

In an old flour sack, Mattie lugs around a hulking six-shooter that belonged to her father, and she aims to use it on Chaney. But in this mean, windswept country overrun by desperadoes and other bad men, Mattie’s most potent weapon is her tongue. In likely the movie’s best showdown, Mattie puts a few holes in the ego of LaBoeuf (Damon), a puffed-up Texas Ranger who makes the fool mistake of trying to put Mattie in her place. It’s not a hard chore to begin with, but Damon’s low-key, likably simple-minded part will make you forget all about singer Glen Campbell’s sorry misfire in the original.

Toe-to-toe against the towering Hollywood legend of John Wayne, the Oscar-winning Bridges trots out in a different, meandering direction. Sometimes drunk and usually disorderly, Bridges underplays his hand, taking Brando-esque mumbling out on the range, while frequently burying his lines. But this Rooster sobers up and flies right just long enough to do what a man has got to do, especially one with true grit and a dead shot. Mattie isn’t just on a quest for her father’s killer, but a fatherly knight in shining leather.

Shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins in New Mexico and Texas, True Grit rides to the screen as a handsome elegy for the classic Western, but armed with a modernist afterglow on the moral consequences of violence and revenge. In this barren and brutal land, even Mattie has a fall from grace, tumbling down a mineshaft crawling with snakes. In the Eden that once was America, the God-fearing and righteous also succumb.


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