By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist December 15, 2010 at 3:04AM
Judging by some of the early reviews of "True Grit" you would think that the Coens had left their bag of tricks at home when making the film, delivering a respectful if overly formal western. However, it seems those reviewers who got an early look forgot that the Coens are often found at the height of their creative powers when operating with a genre milieu. Take "Miller's Crossing," "The Hudsucker Proxy" or "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- all films with giant nods to filmmakers of yore, yet each imbued with the Coens' own distinctive thematic obsessions: this all continues with "True Grit." Wickedly funny, undeniably compelling and yes, touched with a less cynical heart than some of their most recent efforts (though hardly "sentimental" as some critics have suggested) the picture finds the Coens pushing all their usual techniques to the fore, while at the same time keeping them constrained by the genre they're working within and for most part, it works wonderfully.
As you are plenty aware by now, the film is not a remake of the 1969 John Wayne movie per se, but uses Charles Portis’ novel as the source material, which results in a shift of focus from U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). When we first meet Mattie, she's visiting the town where her father has been murdered to collect his things, as her mother is too overcome with grief. With nary a tear in her eye or a falter in her step, Hailee gets right to business and in one of the more memorable sequences, we see that she has far more mettle than the usual girl of her age. She drops in on a man who was holding some horses for her father that were stolen out of his stable and after a sit-down back-and-forth worthy of Aaron Sorkin, she turns the man around completely and gets him to agree to fork over $300. It's a sublime little character moment that doesn't have much bearing on the actual plot, but quickly establishes that Mattie is not be toyed with.
And it's in that spirit that she tracks down Rooster Cogburn. With a reputation as wide and round as his belly, she hires him to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) the man who murdered her father. Cogburn is less than convinced by the girl's story but is swayed by the $50 she offers for the job and soon they are on their way. Sort of. Part of the deal was that Mattie would ride along and make sure the job is done, but Rooster, not eager to take a teenage girl with him through Indian country, leaves without her. Of course, Mattie is not to be stopped and she quickly tracks him down and finds him riding with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has his own interest in finding Chaney as he's wanted for killing a state senator. The trio form an uneasy alliance with Mattie playing referee to the swinging dicks of the professionals, but the chase is on, and they soon find they'll need each other more than they bargained for.
And really, as far as plot goes, that's about it. The conceit for "True Grit" is a simple one -- yep, it's a vengeance/chase flick -- but it gives the Coens plenty of room to play with. The screenplay alone should make longtime Coen fans drool. For anyone who enjoys the brothers' penchant for indulging with reckless abandon in ancient argot, "True Grit" is an orgy of linguistic gymnastics and full credit goes to the cast for making it familiar and engaging when it could so easily be distancing. Any worries that broad audiences will be put off by the old-timey wordplay don't carry much weight when it's delivered as deliciously as it is here. And for those who like their Coens with a bit of edge, there is enough leftfield, graphic violence here to satiate their bloodlust. This is a film where the journey is very much the destination but the journey itself is not without its perils. When action does arrive, it's brief and vicious with some stomach-churning, look-away-from-the-screen moments that make us wonder how on earth the MPAA let it get away with a PG-13 (oh yeah, right, because there's no oral sex).
And while the dialogue is sharp, the cinematography beautiful (Roger Deakins could probably shoot the shit out of the inside of old refrigerator and still make us weep) none of it comes together if the cast isn't game, and you're unlikely to find an ensemble more joyous to be around than the bunch assembled here. In Mattie, the Coens have written their best female character since Marge Gunderson from "Fargo" and, plucked from obscurity, Hailee Steinfeld gives an outstanding, Oscar-worthy performance. It's hard to adequately describe just how in command she is in the picture and it's no easy feat considering she has the lion's share of the dialogue and has to embody as much presence as her capable co-stars. That she can do it is one thing, but that she does so while nailing every nuance of the Coens' witty screenplay with fearlessness and panache is something to behold. It's no surprise that Jeff Bridges is a load of fun, but even he surprises in interesting ways, and the Coens certainly know how to use his grizzled visage. If there is an Academy Award for Best Reaction Faces, Bridges is a total lock. Half of the laughs he gets are from his half-aware expressions and exasperations caused by the actions of Mattie and LaBoeuf. But Bridges has loads of fun wearing an accent and chewing through the script even it it does border on over-the-top at times. And though Damon and Brolin are in the picture for far less time than you might imagine, it's no shock that the Coens went for heavier names as they make their performances look easy when in actuality, they require the audience to invest a lot in their characters within a short time frame.
But the picture isn't all perfection and there are quibbles to be had for the nitpickers. For one, it could easily have been shaved down by ten to fifteen minutes and not suffered much for the loss, but that complaint is minor considering how caught up in the film you'll be anyway. Less forgivable is the Coens' penchant for eccentricity which doesn't work quite so effectively here, feeling odd and misplaced rather than organic. The man wearing the bear head (as seen in the trailer) seems liked a forced visual oddity but perhaps most egregious is a character late in the picture who rides with Ned Pepper's (Barry Pepper) gang. Yarnell is short, dwarfish and only communicates via animal sounds and when he comes jabbering into the picture during some crucial last reel scenes it's a distraction and one they would've been advised to axe completely. And perhaps most glaring, it's never really clear what is driving Mattie's revenge or what kind of a relationship she had with her father that would spur to her to take to country with a drunken loudmouth to confront the man who killed him. And yes, in a picture like this backstory is not particularly necessary, but it certainly would've helped the emotional heft the Coens aim for and don't quite hit towards the end of the picture.
So for better and slightly for worse, "True Grit" is both a traditional western (the awesomely old-school hard close-up character introduction shot of Josh Brolin is the film's biggest tip of the hat to the classics and may be the best shot in the picture) and a Coens picture through and through. Undeniably entertaining, "True Grit" has more than enough of that titular stuff to carry it right through to the Oscars. Saddle up. [A-]