Monday, January 10, 2011

TRUE GRIT (2010)

Truer to the original novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 movie starring John Wayne, the new TRUE GRIT is a smaller film in scope. In the original film directed by Henry Hathaway, the big western sky and rolling horizon were a mighty backdrop to the simple story of a young girl on a quest to avenge the murder of her father. With aging beloved John Wayne in the saddle, that film projected a sunny, big country shine as wide as Wayne's ten gallon cowboy hat.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen trust the big sky hangs overhead and are more concerned with the shadows cast by a small group of people traversing a vast and lonely Indian territory. The camera angles are at eye level here as if the point of view is over the shoulder of characters saying, "you're on your own, partner.". The new country is dark and cold, not sprawling and inviting, guided by human endeavor and what brilliant light there is comes only from the aspirations of the characters.

In the film, fourteen year-old Mattie Ross, (Hailee Seinfeld) arrives in town to claim the body of her murdered father, and hire a gunslinger to kill the culprit, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who killed her dad. Wrangling and bargaining as if buying a cow, she chooses aging drunken Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to track and bring Chaney to justice. Rooster's killing decree is legendary and he'll do it for fifty bucks.

Or so he says. He swipes the fifty bucks, buys her a ticket home, leaves her a note, and hightails it out of town on the trail of a bigger bounty reward for the capture of Chaney. He forms a two-man posse with Texas Ranger La Boeuf, (Matt Damon), also on the trail of Chaney for the killing of a Texan.

But hold on, cowboys. The little lass has got bees in her britches and doesn't take kindly to being left behind. She soon gallops up from behind to join the posse. In traditional western style, the three searchers ride off into a bleak and snowy sunset in search of justice and reward.

And so goes TRUE GRIT, an allegorical western in which the search is a near desperate attempt to connect with humankind. Young Mattie will bargain her dying breath to avenge her father's murder and the two gunmen discover motivation in themselves beyond cash and dutiful reward.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen, masters of several dark and cynical films, (Fargo, No Country For Old Men), have allowed this film to run free of their cutting edge input, leaving it indebted to the original novel and western genre. At times brutally violent, as you can expect from a modern western, it is often profoundly emotional with a heartening decency we haven't seen from these directors before.

Jeff Bridges as one-eyed Rooster Cogburn is skillfull in recreating a beloved character so recognizable as belonging to John Wayne, (Wayne won his only Oscar for the role). With a steely-eyed smirk, drunken sensibility and rattlesnake reaction to gun play, this wilder and more introspective Rooster Cogburn shakes the boots off any preconceived cowboy.

But beyond Bridges and the entire casts wonderful performances, it is the Coen Brothers' grasp of Americana virtues and violence that make this film memorable and even haunting. I entertained a gulp in my throat as the movie rode into its final sunset.

this article was first published at