Spoiler alert-o-meter: Few spoilers ahead.
The Coen Brothers are good storytellers and good filmmakers. True Grit gives them an opportunity to tell a good story well. They are stylists but here their style does not get in the way of this simple story of Mattie Ross who hires U.S. Marshall Reuben Rooster Cogburn to hunt and bring to justice Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father in the American West of the 1870s.
Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn with perfect pitch, and acting chops he can probably summon in his sleep. He delivers, playing Rooster as drunk, crusty, and with a heart still beating under his gruff exterior.
The movie—a drama, with dollops of humor—is smart enough to veer away from the 1969 version and steer closer to the novel by Charles Portis. The Coen Brothers, in their fifties and playing the studio game for a while now, are craftsman. The directing is clean, the visuals often stark and clear in keeping with the American West landscape; mountains and rugged valleys in the winter, snow in the mountains, cold mornings, dead men hanging from high branches.
Hailee Steinfeld, she is preternaturally precocious as she takes to task anyone who won’t help her track down Tom Chaney. Chaney is played by Josh Brolin as a dense man who sees killing as just another occurrence that he stumbles through. He joins forces with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang, and Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper – any relation?), while a ruthless robber and killer, lives by his own code. It may be the wild wild west, but even killers have priorities.
Mattie is happy enough to track Chaney herself but when Rooster takes her up on her offer, she insists on accompanying him. Mattie talks quickly, does not suffer liars and fools, and displays an intellect that outshines any adult. She travels with a gun, and is ready to use it, but talks of contacting her lawyer whenever she feels slighted. She’s a fish out of water, in a rough land, with killers. She has nothing in common with anyone, yet she somehow gets most people to help her, to see her points. It’s easy to forget she’s only fourteen, growing faster than she could ever imagine.
She ends up with not just a U.S. Marshall in her corner, but a Texas Ranger. Played by Matt Damon, the ranger is full of himself; a fly in the ointment that comes through in a pinch. It’s fun to watch Rooster try to outgun the ranger in a competition to hit cornbread used for target practice. It’s an old-fashioned kind of scene in a truly old-fashioned genre. This is not a revisionist Western, not a Wild Bunch or even an Unforgiven. It’s a straight up Hollywood Western, made by filmmakers paying tribute to the genre, not reinventing it for a new generation.
Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Saturday, January 1st 2011, 1:10 matinee. Price $8.25. Viewed solo. Snacks--Twizzlers Cherry Pull N' Peel, Coke Zero.
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