Thursday, February 3, 2011

Movie Review: True Grit (2010)

I confess at the outset to having never disliked a Coen Brothers film. From their 1987 debut Blood Simple through such triumphs as O Brother Where Art Thou, and culminating with last year’s exquisite masterpiece A Serious Man, the Coen brothers have always seemed to have all the answers, even for questions the rest of us might not have thought to ask. This being said, True Grit struck me as something of an underperformer—at least when measured against such lofty standards.

Haley Steinfeld is Matti Ross, the sage and precocious teenaged daughter of a man killed by his hired hand Tom Chaney during a cattle-drive. Despairing of the likelihood of independent justice, Ross seeks out the one-eyed, alcoholic, amusingly matter-of-fact Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges. Ross intends Cogburn to track Chaney into Indian territory with her in tow—despite the fact that Ross herself is only fourteen years old. But before they can depart they are joined in the search by Matt Damon’s Ranger LaBoeuf, tasked with apprehending and extraditing Chaney to Texas for a completely different crime.

A series of fragile partnerships form and disintegrate among the three, in due course airing a wide array of mutual antagonisms. Above all is the deportment of Josh Brolin’s Tom Chaney, whom Cogburn stands to benefit from killing for Ross, and whom LaBoeuf stands to benefit from bringing back alive to stand trial in Texas.

The western genre is at its root a linear one: good guys are good; bad guys are bad; people ride their horses in straight lines and shoot straight when they get there. For this reason I’ve always found myself most impressed by westerns that are unafraid to take big chances—and this is where True Grit lets its audience down: Make a list of the six things that you suppose might happen to our unhappy trio out there on the wrong side of that river, and you’ll pretty-much end up right. Contrast this with, say, Unforgiven, in which the would-be hero is an unremediated mass murderer, his ersatz ring-leader is a lying braggart, and the chief rival is driven from town while the hero is off-camera with the flu.

Everywhere chances for such complexity exist in True Grit, they pass unexploited. Some might argue that the Coen brothers were constrained by the remake-status of the project, but this only removes the question to the wider theater of why they chose this particular movie to remake in the first place, and anyway doesn’t excuse many of the specific choices they made. Even the cinematography felt surprisingly clamped-down and unimaginative, with two of the scenes in the supposedly boundless Indian Country pretty obviously taking place in the same back corner of some sagey woodland, shot from opposite directions.

None of which is to say that this film shouldn’t be seen, since skipping it would deprive the film-lover of one of the great leading performances in recent memory in Hailey Steinfeld’s Matty Ross. Confronted with a script in which her character’s knee-jerk reliance on bookish repartee could easily have devolved into caricature, Steinfeld instead brings a warmth and multidimensionality to the role, contrasting the rigid dialogue with emotive gestures and child-like expression. The effect is to snap us back each time to Ross’ youthful status, galling us with our own parental instinct to see her delivered to safety, with or without the vengeance for which she’s traveled so dangerously far from home.

I began this review by confessing my admiration for the Coen brothers, and so at the end it seems fitting to acknowledge the trap that such admiration brings, in elevated expectations. The problem here isn’t that True Grit is not a good movie, as much as it is a good movie, crafted by virtuoso hands. And in a world cohabited by films like Inception and The Departed and The Day the Earth Stood Still, a good movie that could’ve been better is surely a good problem to have.

The Key Grip gives True Grit three bald heads out of five.

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