Reeling it In: 'True Grit' a true masterpiece

Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2010

"True Grit"

Ap Photo/Paramount Pictures, Wilson Webb
Ap Photo/Paramount Pictures, Wilson Webb
In this film publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Hailee Steinfeld, left, and Matt Damon are shown in a scene from, "True Grit."

Paramount Pictures

1 hour, 50 minutes

For many, John Wayne's iconic thundering ride across an open field into a hail of gunfire toward the end of the 1969 hit western "True Grit" was cinematic nirvana. In their remake, the directors Joel and Ethan Coen have retained the scene much as it is portrayed in the original film.

I remember seeing "True Grit" as a kid. It must have shown on television on Sunday afternoons, along will all the other "old" westerns that my parents and their friends liked, but that I had a hard time sitting still for. I liked John Wayne just fine as a kid, but mostly for what I now recognize as a truly terrible movie called "Rio Lobo," a fact that had less to do with Wayne than a scene where Confederate troops rob a train by tossing a beehive in among the Union soldiers. Anyway, not the Duke's best work, by any stretch. John Wayne won an Academy Award for his role in "Grit", and while the movie is good, his award was more of a recognition of his body of work than for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn.

What I'm getting at is that, while I have a certain appreciation for the original "Grit," and a certain affection for John Wayne, neither are sacrosanct, in my mind, which is why I have no problem in saying that this week's darkly humorous remake is far and away the better film.

Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl set loose on the Arkansas territory after her father is murdered by a no-account drifter named Tom Chaney. Mattie, having come to Little Rock to settle her father's affairs, is determined to see to it personally that Chaney is brought to justice, and sets out to hire a federal marshal to hunt the man down and bring him back to hang. She is advised that, while not the best, Rooster Cogburn, a grizzled, growling, one-eyed bear of a man, is certainly the meanest, and off the girl goes to secure his services.

Also on the trail is a proud and preening Texas Ranger named Leboeuf, after Chaney for an earlier shooting in Texas. Leboeuf, as played by Matt Damon, is straight and true and completely full of himself -- a perfect counterpoint for the wreck of a man that is Rooster Cogburn.

Mattie, having hired Cogburn and rebuffed Leboeuf, is nevertheless horrified to learn that the two have decided to join forces and take their man back to Texas where they can split a sizeable reward. Chaney must hang in Little Rock for the shooting of Mr. Ross, not for some Texas crime. Battle lines between the trio are drawn, but theirs is nothing compared to the battle they soon face involving Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang of thieves and cutthroats, and who have taken Chaney into their fold. The story is action-packed, often very funny, and beautifully crafted.

The Coen Brothers, known for brilliant comedies like "Raising Arizona" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou," are also known for their dark, violent tragedies, such as "Miller's Crossing," and the incredible "No Country for Old Men." "True Grit," one of the few PG-13 films they've released in a career spanning 25 years, falls somewhere in the middle. Nowhere near as bleak as some of the brother's films, "Grit" can't be called a comedy either, though it is often very funny.

Whether you're laughing or cringing, however, it can't be denied that the screenplay is one of the most brilliantly constructed and elegantly worded to have come along in years. It's hard to tell where the credit lies, whether it be the Coens, who adapted the story for the screen, novelist Charles Portis, who wrote the book that's been adapted, or the incredible group of performers who take those words and breathe life into them.

This is so well-written, there's praise enough for all. The dialogue is witty, mannered, and almost alien to our modern way of speaking. That the people involved with this film are able to keep it from sounding stilted or pretentious is remarkable. One thing to keep an ear out for: I didn't spot one contraction through the entire film. No "can't" or "won't," and certainly no "ain't." I don't know if this is artifice or authenticity, but the dignified speech lends a nobility to even the lowest of characters.

Second only to the screenplay is the acting. Jeff Bridges is stellar -- completely disappearing into the ruined guise of Cogburn. What could have easily become parody remains true due to moments of intense emotion -- anger, pathos, and finally a blind determination that easily embodies the true grit of the title. Damon is also very good as Leboeuf, a man you don't want to like until, like Mattie, we come to see the real mettle hiding inside his slightly buffoonish exterior.

Neither of these seasoned actors, however, hold a candle to the real star of the show, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld. Steinfeld's Mattie grabs your attention from her first lines and never lets go. Not at all a childish performance, Mattie's resolve fools you into forgetting how young she is and what peril she's actually in, until the moments when it all comes crashing in.

I was blown away by this young performer, and equally amazed to learn that this is her first feature film. I can only hope that she has good parents and a good manager, because she does an amazing job here, and I'd love to see her continue in this industry, instead of flaming out like so many.

Adding to my enjoyment of this amazing film is the beautiful picture and sound it is presented in at our locally-owned theater, newly updated with digital projectors and a state-of-the-art sound system. Kudos to them for investing in a better movie-going experience for their patrons.

They're offering 3-D films as well, now, so maybe I'll finally get to see one.

I have my doubts, however, that any cinematic gimmick could have improved on the gorgeously shot, meticulously written, and beautifully written film that serves as the Coen Brothers' latest -- a "True" masterpiece.

Grade: A

"True Grit" is rated PG-13 for western violence, some of it gruesome and shocking, however brief.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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