26 December 2010

They Say You've Got True Grit

***** (5 stars)

I'm not sure the Cohen brothers could do wrong if they tried. Sure, they had a bit of a bobble in the early 2000s with "Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Man Who Wasn't There", but it seemed more for them to prove to themselves whether or not they could step outside their comfort zone. They could not. Since their first film "Blood Simple", I have been a fan, and with their latest effort, they tackle the classic Western and a classic film at that.

"True Grit" is based more on the book by Charles Portis than the 1978 John Wayne classic (the only Oscar win for the actor). It tells the story of Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), a precocious 14-year old set on avenging the death of her father at the hands of infamous criminal and dim wit Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). To aid in her quest, she hires washed up drunkard Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a U.S. Marshal with the titular aplomb. Wandering in and out of the hunt is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced LaBeef) who's been tracking Chancey through several states, played by the impressively moustachioed Matt Damon. Through Mattie's determination and hard will, and Rooster's knowledge of the underworld of Arkansas, the two will embark on a treacherous and often funny adventure towards revenge and redemption.

The film is a casting agents wet dream. Steinfeld is a revelation. I may use that word too often, but her performance is really something to see. She is truly deserving of her SAG nomination and in any other year would have surely garnered a Golden Globe nod as well. How someone so young (she was 14 when shooting the picture) could deliver a performance that is so confident and assured amidst Titans of the industry is impressive. That she does it with humour as well left me gobsmacked.

Jeff Bridges is competing against himself this weekend (see my review of "Tron:Legacy" here). He channels his inner Dude (a figure in many ways most resembling him in the real world) and infuses his Rooster with a sense of humour about himself and an inner desire to do good even though he would rather be drinking and sleeping. The verbal tet-a-tete's between him and Damon are some of the best acting scenes in recent memory. He is at the top of his game and stands a chance of becoming the 4th male to win back to back acting Oscars (Spencer Tracy, Jason Robards, and Tom Hanks before him). He missed out on the Globe, but they can be a fickle bunch. Perhaps they didn't like that this was a remake of sorts. Who knows! I'm keeping my fingers crossed he gets nominated.

Damon comes off with the kind of chutzpah that first attracted us to him in "Good Will Hunting". He is the underdog amongst underdogs. Whether being bested by a young girl and a drunken old man or the criminal that is constantly alluding him, he has a strong determination to see this quest through and collect the reward he has been chasing for months. We aren't sure if we are supposed to like LaBoeuf or if he is a sort of anti-villain; someone to get in the way of Mattie's ultimate goal. Through his actions, we find that he is a man of honor and true grit as well.

In the final showdown between good and evil, Chancy has met up with a gang of petty criminals and thieves led by Lucky Ned Pepper (a hardly recognizable Barry Pepper). [side note: Where the heck has Barry Pepper been and what is up with directors making attractive men so much less so?] It is a moment that is both climactic and reserved. The point is not in the action but in what said action sequences represent. It is a defining moment for each character. 

Long time collaborator Roger Deakins brings together both the expanse of unsettled early America and the intimacy between characters with his cinematography. Can we get this guy an Oscar for Pete's sake?!

I was weary about this movie, the original being one of my favorite Westerns of all time; but in the ever capable hands of the Cohen brothers it is a thing of beauty. My father remarked that it is much more in keeping with the novel than the earlier film. I haven't read the book but I will take his word on it. What is evident is that this movie stands alone and outside comparison with the Wayne version. They are almost different entities and are completely different films. I hope this movie does well and we can usher back an age of the Western, the undoubtedly American genre of film that I thought "3:10 to Yuma" would have done in 2007. Of course, that was also a remake so maybe the point is we need new Westerns. Someone call Clint Eastwood and tell him to quit making his political films and get back to business!

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