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True Grit Is Another Solid Effort From the Coens

True Grit
Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen based on the book by Charles Portis
Paramount, 2010

The Coen Brothers are almost like Pixar, in that you can count on almost every movie they make to be at the very least entertaining.  There are some detractors for movies such as The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and The Ladykillers, and for me, Intolerable Cruelty, and some people don’t think The Big Lebowski is the funniest thing in the world despite its cult status (which also goes for Burn After Reading, the latest Coen Brothers movie to get a cult following).  But universally respected with few exceptions are movies like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and No Country for Old Men, and we haven’t even talked about Barton Fink, A Serious Man, and Miller’s Crossing.

Even in their most reviled movies, there is at least one trait that you can hold on to, whether it’s a character, or the script, or the way they shoot a scene.  The movie I always have a hard time defending is The Hudsucker Proxy, a movie I find curiously disliked.  Some people hate Jennifer Jason Leigh’s throwback over-the-top performance, I love it.  The cinematography, editing, and script are all beautiful.  But I throw my hands in the air on that one.  When you have to explain why something is good, it no longer has the power to be good.

Fans of the Coens generally raise their expectations for every movie they make, and so soon after the Best Picture of 2007, the modern Western No Country for Old Men was released, it would be fair to think one would be getting something of an equal caliber with their remake of True Grit, the book that was made into a movie back in 1969 with John Wayne and Glen Campbell.  However, it is advised when going into True Grit not to expect a transcendent experience.  The way the movie is made does not shoot for lofty goals, although once again, they make movies slightly different than others, and an average movie becomes very good.

In True Grit, a young girl, Mattie Ross (excellent newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) enlists a U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (here pronounced “La Beef,” played by Matt Damon) to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father.  Though Rooster is hesitant at first, he decides to take the job, hoping Mattie will go back home to her family to be safe.  However, Mattie is headstrong, well beyond her 14 years, and ends up tagging along into Indian Territory to find the man, who might be caught up with other dangerous outlaws, such as Lucky Ned Pepper (played, appropriately enough, by Barry Pepper).

And really, that’s pretty much the story.  Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf have internal arguments, all the while trying to survive against mean sumbitches.  Where the Coens shine in this movie is in the long-distance gun battles, where a character is sitting on an elevated surface looking down into a valley.  The sound is amazing (there is one scene where a gun fires from far away, and there’s a slight delay in hearing it), but where it’s the best is in one key scene, where in almost every other director’s hands it would have been shot and edited the same way: you know how when a protagonist is about to get shot, and you hear a gunshot, and you think, “Oh no!  My hero is going to be dead!” only to find out that someone off screen has shot the antagonist, usually some forgotten character or character thought to be dead?  The Coens do that scene here, but from a different perspective, and it’s really awesome.  It’s all in the details: gunplay is realistic.  When the diminutive Mattie shoots a gun, she may have all the confidence in the world, but that thing is going to cause her frame to whip back, and this is a small, but important part, of how the story progresses.

Even when something as small as, let’s say, dead weight is cut from the limb of a tree, and one of our heroes is on top of the limb, and to see the limb sigh as it lets go of that weight, is something that is generally forgotten in most movies.

But that is not to say True Grit is one of the most amazing experiences in cinema you’ll ever have.  However, it has very little to dislike. The acting is strong.  You’ll come away with the young Hailee Steinfeld grabbing hold of this movie and running with it, but the always reliable Jeff Bridges is also great, playing the crusty Rooster to perfection.  Matt Damon is clearly having fun with his supporting role here.  Damon has been the lead depended upon to carry so many movies in the past few years, he probably relished the chance to not only work with the Coen Brothers, but also not feel the weight of the movie’s success riding on his shoulders.

It’s just one of those movies.  Go see it.

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