Thursday, December 23, 2010

True Grit

I’m kind of a sucker for the Coen Brothers, so I feared that even before seeing it I would not be able to build critical distance from their newest film, True Grit, which already touts best picture buzz. Even with its prerelease praise and my affection for Joel and Ethan Coen, I left the theater a bit underwhelmed after this one.

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Hailee Steinfeld giving her first feature film appearance were all excellent. Having not read the novel, I can’t speak to how faithful the film was, but after viewing trailers, I was surprised at how lighthearted the movie got at times. I sort of expected a rough and tough Coen western – which at times it was – but was a surprised by its buffoonery. There’s a scene in the film where Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), a drunken violent U.S. marshal gets involved in a heated metaphorical dick measuring competition with LaBoeuf (Damon), a proud Texas ranger who has spent months on the trail of the petty low ranking gang member Tom Chaney (Brolin) by throwing cornbread (a limited and necessary resource on their tiring search for Chaney) into the air and firing at it mid flight.

Cogburn is built up from the moment we actually see him as this ultimate badass as he sits in court, emotionless as he’s being grilled about what he calls self-defense, which really may have been murder. As the film continues to roll, though, Cogburn sort of becomes comparable to Jim in Mel Brooks’ classic 1974 western comedy Blazing Saddles struggling to sit up:

Bart: Need any help?

Jim: Oh… All I can get

The story is one of revenge. Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) is 14 years old. She’s incredibly smart for her age. Sometimes, she seems to be a bit too smart given the violent and unforgiving terrain of old Arkansas in which she lives. After all, the film takes place in a time where a woman’s role was much different than it is now. It was somewhat difficult to believe that Mattie could bully some of these hardened cowboys the way she does. Mattie wishes to avenge her father’s death by killing Chaney, the guilty party. She reaches out to Cogburn who is predictably reluctant to help with her search, and he predictably gives in. LaBoeuf wants Chaney for his own reasons, but the three make for a fun team to root for on their way to Chaney.

The acting shines, and I suspect Steinfeld has a long career ahead of her. I enjoyed this film, but it fell short of my expectations. I hold the Coens to a high standard as they have made some of my all time favorite movies, so maybe I’m jaded. The Coens always have humor in their films, regardless of subject, I’m just not so sure it works in True Grit as effectively in some of their prior films. In The Big Lewbowski, the comedy was witty, and abrasive, in Fargo it was grotesque, and in No Country for Old Men it was frightening. Here, it borders on slapstick, which is a tight squeeze for a movie about revenge in a violent south.

I remember leaving the theater after seeing No Country and someone said “Get your money back on that one!” It’s one of my favorite films personally, but I understood why a dude on a date would have been disappointed. It wasn’t a popcorn movie. It demanded more thought than the time spent in the theater actually watching it, which is the main reason I am so fond of the Coen Brothers filmography.

True Grit is a good popcorn movie, and a fun watch with terrific acting, but it isn’t a film I’ll be dwelling on for days, weeks, months or even years to come.

As a rating, I’ll give the classic, tried and true cliché response: It’s good for what it is.

No comments: