In Theaters: Review of True Grit

by | Dec 27th, 2010 | 2:05AM | Filed under: Movies, Theatrical Reviews

Theatrical Review: Brace yourselves. The Coen Brothers’ 2010 version of True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges, Hallie Steinfeld, and Matt Damon, and full of the filmmakers’ usual deadpan humor and wry, sideways jabs at cynical sentimentality and jaded heroism, surpasses the 1969 John Wayne version.

We can argue ‘til the cows come home whether Jeff Bridges is better at playing Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne was. (I’ll say Bridges is better at playing the character, Wayne is better at playing the legend.) But this True Grit is simultaneously a fine film, a solid adaptation of Charles Portis’ tremendous 1968 novel, and best of all provides all kinds of cinematic enjoyment.

(You can rent the John Wayne version of True Grit from redbox.)

If you’ve somehow managed to walk this planet without seeing John Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1969 True Grit (or reading Portis’ highly recommended book), the plot is easily encapsulated: In the 1880s, determined 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) sets out from her home in Yell County, Arkansas, to find and bring to justice Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who shot her pa.

To that end she hires an aging, fat, drunken, blind-in-one-eye U.S. Marshal named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges) because she believes he has the “true grit” necessary to do the job. As they head into Indian Territory in pursuit of Chaney and the gang of thieves he’s fallen in with, Mattie and Rooster are joined by Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), whose braggadocio more than makes up for his questionable experience.

Portis’ novel sets out to find the hard grains of usually self-serving “heroism” at the heart of all the mythological hooey that’s gunked up over the Legends of the Wild West. Wayne’s version became more about The John Wayne Legend—and delightfully so. But the Coens, with their ironic detachment and distaste for unearned sentiment, get back to that rough, sardonic core of the novel.

The brothers also find Portis’ slang and idiom well-suited to their own love of language and words. Like last year’s Inglorious Basterds, much of this True Grit is more about talking than fighting—there’s Mattie’s fiercely funny bargaining over her father’s livestock, Cogburn trying to keep his story straight during courtroom cross examination, LaBeouf expounding (much to Rooster’s chagrin) on the qualities of the Rangers, and of course Rooster regaling Mattie with tales of his various wives.

Not that it’s all talk—True Grit ends up as one of the Coens’ most lively and heroic films (the climax is still heart-pounding terrific), while still humorously underscoring the personal selfishness behind most heroic acts. (It goes on the Coen shelf next to Miller’s Crossing as genre pieces that both subvert and embrace the type.) And as they did for Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men, the Coens have served Portis’ prose well, putting back into their film the sharper edges Wayne’s version sanded off.

Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne, but the point is neither is Rooster Cogburn. Bridges’ Cogburn, with his broken bassoon growl, is meaner, more ornery, and less obviously competent—and he’s also, rightfully, not the star of the show. It’s Mattie’s story (of course, she’s the one with the true grit), and Steinfeld rises to the occasion without coming off precious or precocious.

Damon’s LaBeouf, all posturing buckskin and spurs, nicely rounds out the trio. And Brolin and Barry Pepper show up later doing nicely fleshed-out work as Chaney and Lucky Ned Peppers, the outlaw he’s thrown in with.

(The film’s other stars are Coen regulars Roger Deakins–whose usual beautiful cinematography stuns without strutting–and Carter Burwell, whose score majestically riffs on the melancholy hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”)

The Coens balance Portis’ humor and adventure, but also his bittersweet sense (filtered through Mattie’s stern religious standards) that people are never as noble as they and their biographers would have you believe, and events never unfold quite according to myth. That in the end, “time just gets away from us,” diminishing our earthly bodies to dust and leaving behind only legends.

The Coens and their actors infuse that Unforgiven-esque message with entertaining performances and typically flawless storytelling, making this True Grit one of those rare, masterful films that’s as enriching as it is entertaining. And that makes it one of the best films of the year.


9 Responses to “In Theaters: Review of True Grit”

    • Currently 1/5 Stars
    Bill
    Posted on December 28, 2010 at 1:21 am

    I watched the new version of “True Grit”. I think this reviewer must be on crack. The film left me and the audience at a loss for words at the end as it was such a cheap rip off of the original. The actors seemed they were reciting lines out of a high school play. Damon looked like he was in a fake buckskin outfit that was bought off an Indian reservation. He was totally miscast in the movie and thrashed around trying to find an identity. The movie was called True Grit and each person was supposed to show whether they possessed the quality. In the original you could identify how each person heroically stepped up to the task when it was called for. Not so in this version. Bridges acted more the role of a street bum looking for a pay out than someone with grit. The showdown at the end was so disappointing it seemed an act of desperation rather than courage. In this version the ranger lived with minor injury and there was an extra horse standing in the field. Why were these resources not utilized to save Mattie? I guess it was the Coen’s way of just seeing how stupid they think their adoring fans really are. Mattie was the surprising star in this film but even in the ending she was made to look weird and somewhat of a nut. It was the Coen’s last stab at destroying all the characters in the story. No “Grit” in this movie more like a pile of ‘True Sh#t’. Rent the original it is a good movie, this one is a waste of two hours watching a bad script and poor character development.

  1. JawaWaxer
    Posted on December 28, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Trolling trolls will troll.

  2. millar74
    Posted on December 28, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    don’t have as much to say as Bill, but i thoroughly enjoyed this film. fine cast, fine script. also glad to see that i’m not the only one to describe the dialogue in relation to tarentino. showing this review to friends so i can say, HA told ya!

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Margaret Barber
    Posted on December 30, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    I think it depends on your age and your expectations when you view this film.
    It’s great!

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    matphoto
    Posted on January 5, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Geez when were contractions invented? I was fine with the slow, blocky dialogue for the most part until the end when the outlaws all talked the same way too. Other than that small turn-off, I liked it a lot. Mattie’s character is really what made the long sequences of dialogue interesting. The hanging dead man and cabin scenes in particular stood out for me, both cinematically and character-wise, and the tribute to the natives was sadly (or hilariously?) spot on.

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Rich
    Posted on January 11, 2011 at 3:18 am

    I loved the John Wayne version and LOVE the novel and was preparing to love this one…but I’m still trying to figure out what Jeff Bridge’s Rooster was saying. The Coens have him speak like he’s got pebbles in his mouth, which ruins Portis’s powerful dialogue and pokes holes in the story. True brains on that directing decision? Not much! Outside that dubious choice, the movie looks terrific and the casting is fabulous: Bridges is non-Dukish and effective, Matt Damon is perfect as the Texas Ranger, and Hailey Steinfeld is an powerful, convincing Mattie Ross. It’s a good film, but the Coens made a bad call when they gave Jeff Bridges a mouthful of gravel.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    C.J. Hays
    Posted on March 1, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    When I read a book or sit through a movie, my aim is to be transported to another place and time – whether it’s 1800′s Utah, 2100 New York City, or 1940′s Arkansas. True Grit did it’s job. I was indeed transported and transfixed. The dialogue, the setting, the acting, costumes, the “grittiness” of the Old West, it was all there. I overheard a woman say it was the “stupidest” movie she ever saw. They talked funny, and you couldn’t understand a word they said. They were filthy, and it was just stupid! Well, what can you say? I loved it. I loved the score, and I could sit through it again right now. Can’t wait till it comes out on Blu-Ray so that I can own it, and share it with friends and family. Great review, BTW! :)

    CJH

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    shirley
    Posted on April 12, 2011 at 12:42 am

    i saw this movie in the movie theater and it was a great movie.. i would buy this movie and watch it again and again.. so would my boyfriend