Oscar winner Jeff Bridges has managed to star in one of the best and one of the worst films of 2010; True Grit is the former. Masterfully crafted by the Americana-obsessed Coen Brothers (Joel & Ethan), this remake of the classic John Wayne western is a feast for the eyes and a hell of a good time.
The film centers on the fiery and fearless Mattie Ross. Played with simple elegance by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, Mattie is a fourteen-year-old girl who refuses to be dwarfed in a reckless world as full of men as it is phallic symbols. Presented as a lamb among wolves, Mattie traverses the tough terrains of the untamed West in pursuit of revenge. After her father is murdered, the former child bookkeeper becomes the figurative man of the house—much to the bewilderment of those she crosses—and sets out to find a man of “true grit” to hunt down and kill her father’s murderer. That man is the one-eyed drunkard, Marshall Rooster Cogburn, a role originated by John Wayne and played expertly here by a once again ragged Jeff Bridges.
Now, I believe the greatest virtue an actor can possess is the absence of vanity. Not humility or modesty, mind you, but the risky and fearless acceptance of appearing unkempt, grotesque, and potentially unlovable. If this lack is a virtue, then Jeff Bridges is undoubtedly its patron saint. For while Cogburn is at his core a bully who will suffer no fools – he is a joy to watch as he rides, shoots, and cusses. Bridges lets it all hang out (often literally) and it makes the crass and gruff Cogburn an unfailing fun anti-hero. Joining this unlikely duo’s journey is the laughably brash Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon with a suitably smirking warmth. Josh Brolin returns to the Coens as the murderous Chaney. And while the role is small, he is wonderfully menacing, as he looms large over the gun-cradling Mattie. He’s a beast and another reminder of the dangerous world outside of civilization. True Grit is both beautiful and brutal as it unravels its tale of old west retribution.
At its heart, this is a story about the loss of innocence where Eve is bitten by a snake rather than the biting an apple. And while some will claim blasphemy at the notion of a Wayne remake, I have two remarks on this regard. One: both films were based on a book so the line on inspiration is blurred. And two: while I love John Wayne and the original has a special place in my heart as a devout fan of westerns, the Coen’s True Grit at times outdoes the original by trading charm for real grit. While often humorous, this is no glossy western with a beloved star playing a slightly off-putting codger. Instead, it’s a dyed in the wool western without nostalgia or romance. Where with No Country for Old Men the Coens unveiled a modern and merciless western, True Grit is an homage that is earnest yet avoids being overwrought. Simply put, movies like this are why I go to the theater.
The Coens know when to hang on a moment, whether for emotional resonance or to allow the audience to take in the awe-inspiring cinematography. Landscapes roll past on film, relishing in colors unique to the medium. (To this day, Roger Deakins is the only DP I know whose title card elicits cheers from movie audiences.) The violence is thrilling but never glorified. And while this back to basics western is cast with mainly A-List actors, no one is buffed and shined. Instead the impeccable art design mars the usually handsome leading men with hair, dirt, and general coarseness – rejecting the garishness and glossiness that often accompany Hollywood remakes. Ultimately, True Grit is an old-school tale told by modern filmmaking masters, a thing of beauty to behold on the big screen.
True Grit opens nationwide December 22, 2010.
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