December 29, 2010

Into the Sunset

2010's windin' on down to a close here, pardner. Lookin' like we done gots ourselves slim pickins from here on out the rest uh de year. What you suppose we do about it?

Sorry, I'll stop with that hopelessly contrived western accent. Yes, 2010 only has a good three days left, and then we are to 2011. Because of this, the influx in quality cinematic entertainment has been fast and furious, as it is every winter. We've had a lot, but I think we are officially at then end of the line. After all those tales of psychotic ballerinas, stammering kings and drugged out fighters, we have reached the conclusion. Rounding out the pack, and closing the book on 2010 is True Grit. It's a western of the highest class, beautifully shot, very well acted and directed, with a great sense of the era in which it is set. Though the movie is very nearly undone by one terrible mistake, it's still worth every penny you will spend on it.

Ok, ok! The Dude abides! I'm sorry!

When her pa is killed and his cash pilfered by a man named Tom Chaney, fourteen year old Mattie Ross vows revenge. To go about this, she hires the washed up, but merciless, Rooster Cogburn, a US Marshal to hunt him down. The catch? She's going with him, so that she may bring Chaney to justice herself. After teaming up with a LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who has been tailing Chaney for some time, Cogburn and Ross set out into the vast, untamed land of the west. In this lawless land, nowhere is safe, something Mattie will quickly learn the hard way.

Writers/Directors Joel and Ethan Coen were adamant that this version of True Grit was an adaptation of the book, not the John Wayne classic. As it goes, it's a very well told story, one that moves very slowly so as to explore the characters, and then picks up a ton of steam in the final act. It's a ver traditional film, at least for the Coens, although plenty of their touches, oddball humor and whatnot, definitely come through.

If they handed out MVP Awards for actors each month, Jeff Bridges would win December 2010. Coming off strong from Tron: Legacy, he, quite simply, acts the shit out of Cogburn. I mean, I don't know what else could have happened. Bridges is, after all, reuniting with the guys who got a career best performance out of him. Cogburn, though, couldn't be farther from The Dude when it comes to character type. Cogburn is a boorish, drunken, but deadly and exacting law enforcer, ready to scarf down a bottle of whisky one minute then shoot you and three other guys in the head without breaking a sweat. Bridges plays all these elements masterfully, while still retaining an air of humor about the whole thing. He's funny guy, when you think about it, despite all his serious flaws and tendencies. To see him nonchalantly order Mattie to cut down an hanged man to see if he knew him, only to callously declare "I do not know this man," was a downright hilarious moment. Bridges hasn't faltered since winning that Oscar. Let's hope he keeps it up.

Matt Damon does some of his best acting in years as the sarcastic and optimistic LaBoeuf, and Josh Brolin turns in an effectively villainous role as Chaney. Barry Pepper also shows up as the leader of a gang of bandits who Chaney gets caught up in. If anything, he reminds everyone why they should just forget about Battlefield: Earth and start casting him in bigger roles.

But the real scene stealer is Hailee Steinfeld as the headstrong and stubborn Mattie. Put simply, this is one the most stunning feature length debuts I've ever seen, from any actor of any age. Steinfeld is awesome in this role, handling the challenging dialogue and physical demands of the job like a champ! She's fierce, funny, sweet, and resolute in her task to bring her father's killer to justice. If only every kid had her passion. What kind of a world would we live in then? It's a marvelous performance from Steinfeld, and I really hope it leads to bigger and better things for her in the future.

Don't look so surprised girl! It's pretty tough out here!

Joel and Ethan Coen have made a name for themselves by mashing up various genres of film into one, or putting a fresh spin on a classic one. True Grit falls somewhat into the latter category, but, even then, that's a stretch. To say that this one doesn't really feel like a Coen Bros. movie is a pretty apt description. It feels and looks like a traditional western. Gone are the surreal and quirky scenes from The Big Lebowski. Gone is whip-snap dialogue of Fargo. The long stretches of desert tundra that made up a good portion of No Country For Old Men are there, but they aren't used for nearly as long aren't used for the same effect. Indeed, it seems like the Coens set out to make a standard western, and, in that sense, they succeeded admirably. It's a beautiful film, full of wide open plains, claustrophobic forests, babbling brooks and breathtaking vistas. The world is rife with money grubbing entrepreneurs, unfeeling and greedy bandits, and accurate as hell gunslingers. It's traditional fare, but it's handled marvelously. 

The Coen's trademark, off beat sense of humor is here though, and used to great effect in some scenes. There's a tangent, where Cogburn and LeBoeuf get into an argument over who can shoot better, and proceed to spend the next few minutes shooting corn bread out of the air. Mattie's ability to negotiate with people offers some humorous moments, and there's a scene with a medicine man that is so off kilter that it might as well be from any Coen movie.

Unfortunately, there is one thing here that drags the film down from it's perch of stupendous awesomeness, and that's the ending. Basically, the story ends, and then there's a five minute epilogue showing where they ended up, and it was not needed at all. It seems like the Coens didn't have enough faith in their craft and they wanted to impart some sort of meaning on to their film, so they wrote the epilogue to deliver the message. First off, there was plenty of meaning and subtext in what was already there, and second of all, in the state it's in, the message just seems forced and contrived. It was completely unnecessary and it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.

That being said, those last five minutes do not, in any way, detract from the first 105. True Grit is just a damn good, very well acted, and smartly directed, old fashioned western. The Coens aren't trying to change anything with this. All they want to do is make a traditional cowboy flick in the vein of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. They succeed. Not only do they manage to make an excited and visually impressive film, but they manage great performances from Bridges, Damon, and Brolin, topped off by a fantastic, star making performance from Steinfeld. Though it probably won't get much Oscar buzz, True Grit is absolutely worth every dollar. It's just that damn ending. If only it weren't there.



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3 comments:

  1. I loved LaBoeuf. He was so bitchy.

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  2. Even a "pretty good" Coen brothers film is still head and shoulders above career bests by most filmmakers. And this is one of those "pretty good" films.

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