This Cowboy Flick Has True Grit
Performances show true craftsmanship in this classic Western throwback.
December was Jeff Bridges' month. Almost one year after winning his first Oscar for Crazy Heart and less than one week after he appeared in dual roles in the flimsy but eye-catching Tron: Legacy, the Dude returns with an eye-patch in the Coen Brothers breezy, entertaining new Western True Grit.
The brothers and Bridges haven't worked together since his iconic performance in 1998's The Big Lebowski. This time around, Bridges plays equal parts gruff and funny in the mostly solid but somewhat arbitrary True Grit.
Returning to big-name casting after A Serious Man, the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen is an adaptation of the 1969 film of the same title that starred John Wayne (allegedly, this new film is more loyal to the Charles Portis novel that inspired the first). In this version, Bridges plays the drunken gunslinger Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, the role that earned Wayne an Oscar.
The Coens' version is almost something else entirely. Though the performances are outstanding, if anyone's getting an Oscar for this one it should be the cinematographer, Roger Deakins, the longtime collaborator of the directorial siblings. It's to his credit that both the Coens and Bridges disappear as the empty winter landscape takes over this slow-paced but gorgeous film that is mostly set in the elements in the cottonwood forests and plains of the Indian Territory before it became Oklahoma.
Bridges' performance in True Grit never feels as though it is trying to fill John Wayne's boots. Instead, he plays Cogburn as a slightly unhinged alcoholic. An untrustworthy stumblebum armed with six-guns, Cogburn guides a hardheaded young girl, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), in her journey to avenge her father's death. After a memorable courtroom scene in which we learn Cogburn's trigger-happy nature, the Falstaff-like Cogburn reluctantly leads the 14-year old Mattie into a world filled with outlaws, Indians and an inept Texas Ranger (Matt Damon).
Of course, this all ends in an encounter with the bad guys, played brilliantly by Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin. The baddies in True Grit are worth the sometimes digressive wait.
Though in the end, it is a meat-and-potatoes cowboy movie. However, it's seasoned with period detail, inspiring landscapes and archaically beautiful language. There are scenes on the finer points of horse trading, meditations on frontier justice and most memorably, a dentist hidden inside a bear pelt. However, not everything can be as surreal and unexpected as that last encounter. True Grit, like stepping out of a time machine, never feels inauthentic, but neither can it do much to surprise.
This is the sort of movie that begins with a Bible quote and ends with a shootout. Under less methodical directors True Grit could have been a dull genre flop (i.e. Kevin Costner's attempts at reviving the Western) but the Coen brothers are nothing less than old hands at handling this kind of serious but subtly humorous historical drama.
Like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), it manages to feel both authentic and lively. The movie may not be as outright funny as O Brother but it's not as dark and relentless as No Country for Old Men(2007).
This type of film is not everyone's cup of whiskey. If you own all three seasons of HBO's Deadwood, constantly play Red Dead Redemption or love Cormac McCarthy's fiction, then you've come to right place, pilgrim. True Grit revels in being old school, a violent parable set on the prairie.
True Grit's strengths and weaknesses lie in the movie's purposeful simplicity and faithfulness to the genre. It's a beautiful, well-paced film that is nevertheless aware of its limitations. It chooses to bend rather than break our expectation of the Western.
Bridges is certainly worth seeing as the broken-down gunslinger, but his fast-talking protégée is a revelation. Steinfeld displays the sort of tenacious breakout performance this kind of movie needs to maintain our fascination throughout innumerable shootouts and shots of the Oklahoma landscape.
Though True Grit is mostly a straight-forward Western, it does have its moments of dark comedy. The film may be a hard sell for anyone who's not into spurs, horses and guns, but it is the type of film that keeps your attention through the sheer force of its performances as the story slowly builds. What's better is how the ending, for better or worse, keeps you talking long afterward.
Whether you are disposed to the genre or not, True Grit feels like something made with a bygone sense of care and craftsmanship.