By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 1, 2010 at 5:58AM
Finally, the last anticipated Oscar contender has been screened and Wednesday, reviewed. The question is whether expectations of the Coens' True Grit have been overblown. Reaction at one New York screening was mixed. It's not surprising; pure westerns do not play in some quarters. Younger moviegoers don't get the genre; westerns are set in a past that is too distant and foreign. But the Academy, which trends older and male, will be far more receptive, so this well-mounted movie may well hit their soft spot. (The Gurus 'O Gold weigh in). Here is our round-up of True Grit's other early reviews.
Many critics thought the Coen brothers had delivered a western with No Country for Old Men, which went on to win the 2008 best picture Oscar. When asked what they wanted to do next, they replied, "a western," and brought the idea of adapting the 1968 Charles Portis novel True Grit to producer Scott Rudin.
Paramount owned the rights to the 1969 John Wayne classic, and the Coens swiftly signed up Jeff Bridges to star. When Rudin saw his performance in Crazy Heart, he encouraged Fox Searchlight to get the film out last year; he was worried that the two roles --seedy alcoholics in need of redemption--were too similar.
Well, Bridges went on to win the Oscar, but he delivers yet another order of brilliance as the U.S. Marshall Rooster Rogburn and owns the character in his own right: he's cantankerous, wily, murderous and, finally, heroic. "Bridges does more with one eye than most people do with two," says Rudin.
Like Fargo, which won Frances McDormand a best actress Oscar, the Coens have crafted a flinty narrative with an upright female soul at its center. True Grit is about a tough, smart 14-year-old girl in pigtails (the homage to Judy Garland's Dorothy is intentional) who enlists two less educated men--albeit more dangerous and experienced-- than she to track down and bring to justice her father's killer (Josh Brolin).
As played by California-based newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (who sent an audition tape to the Coens), Mattie Ross is sharp-witted, well-spoken, fearless, knowledgable about the law, and determined to get her way. Feisty does not describe this strong-minded young lady.
Watching her earn the respect and admiration of the men who want to dismiss her is one of the great pleasures of this movie, which is also a moving father-daughter love story. While the movie is very funny--Matt Damon continues to polish his skills as a lovable dimwit buffoon--there are tears before bedtime.
The Coens are at the top of their game, honoring the great John Ford with a tip of the hat to Anthony Mann. The southwest vistas are stunning, the production details authentic, the costumes wittily on the mark. Cinematographer Roger Deakins may finally earn his Oscar, because for once he is not competing against himself. Unfortunately by basing the soundtrack on hymns of the period, Carter Burwell's exquisite score is likely ineligible.
Critics may be mixed on this slow-paced western character study, which does not function as an action picture. Marketing materials are testing well and Rudin hopes that the PG-13 film will play across the country as a family film. That's what the Coens told USA Today they were aiming for. Well, the first cut was too violent to rate a PG-13, Rudin admits. The Coens had to make some trims in a bloody finger-chopping scene to land that rating.
The December 22 wide release may work for older filmgoers and a holiday family crowd. But the film's archaic, formal style and florid period language, which will be admired by the Academy's writing branch, may prove too formidable a barrier to a mass audience.