Friday, January 7, 2011

Reel To Reel: True Grit (2010)

There will be vengeance.

Going Rate: Worth full price.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Western gunslinging and a few bloody scenes of violence

Years from now, people will debate which version of True Grit is better: the John Wayne classic or this emerging classic from Joel and Ethan Coen, that versatile film-making brotherhood who can succeed in nearly every genre they touch. They know all the ingredients of an epic Western: strong characters, strong morals, great gunfights and great cinematography.

For those who need a plot summary: Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) is seeking someone to track down Tom Cheney (Brolin), the man who shot her father and left him to die outside a hotel before fleeing into Indian territory. Ross, a tenacious and stubborn farm girl, seeks the aid of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges). The marshal has "true grit" in Mattie's eyes, but he also has issues with drinking and sloth. It's hard to figure how such a man could garner a tough reputation, but Mattie is convinced when she watches Cogburn testify at a trial for one of the men he brought in. She hires Cogburn to go after Cheney, but insists on going along for the chase. The partnership is complicated by a Texas Ranger, LaBeouf (Damon), who wants Cheney to stand trial in the Lone Star State instead of hanging in Arkansas.

I will admit to you that I haven't seen the John Wayne version, but I can serenely surmise the Coens' take is grittier than the first Grit, starting with Bridges' rumpled and endearing version of Cogburn. You can almost smell him through the celluloid as he looks more like a homeless man than a lawman. John Wayne could be endearing and tough, but not convincingly loutish.

As for toughness, neither one holds a candle to Steinfeld's strong-willed and deeply moral characterization of Mattie. "You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another," she says. "There is nothing free except the grace of GOD." A scene where she bargains for money from a stable master is a classic in how to write dialogue with both wit and tension. If she doesn't get an Oscar nod from this breakthrough role, somebody at the Academy needs to be "taken out and whupped," as they said in the Old West. Ditto for Bridges.

Speaking of Old West speech, I doubt you'll find many films that come closer than this one in styling dialogue to true 1800's vocabulary. It's laced with an anachronistic formality where people ask, "What are your intentions?" or "Is that not the bargain?" It sounds more Shakespearean than Western. I just had a flashback to Robin Williams mocking The Bard in Dead Poets' Society via a John Wayne imitation: "Is that a dagger I see before thee?"

True Grit depends heavily on the chemistry among Cogburn, Ross and LaBeouf. Here are three people sharing a common agenda but with different endgames in mind. They are all mutually repulsed by each other and yet mutually dependent on the others. "You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements," LaBeouf says to Mattie in one scene. "While I sat there watchin' I gave some thought to stealin' a kiss... though you are very young, and sick... and unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt." Now that pretty well sums it up.

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