Written for the Screen and Directed by The Coen Brothers
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin
Theatrical Release Date: 22 December 2010
Date of Screening: 28 December 2010
Fourteen-year old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) hires U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to track down her father's killer, Tom Chaney (Brolin). It's as simple as that. (Oh, and Matt Damon as LaBoeuf is also on Chaney's trail.) Lots of eyebrows were raised when word first broke that the Coen Brothers intended to make this film; it seems that remaking a John Wayne movie is about like declaring that you see how the Sistine Chapel should be repainted. Never mind that True Grit was originally a novel by Charles Portis; audiences think of the Duke and that's that.
Then came the first trailer, set to Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down." It felt like a short film unto itself, and I have to say it was one of the rare instances in recent years that I went from indifferent to enthusiastic about a movie during the span of its trailer. I was to learn that the action-centric trailer was culled largely from the final 10-15 minutes, of course, but it looked like an old school Western with wall-to-wall perils. In any event, I was able to stroll into Tinseltown Louisville with my wife and several of our friends with nary a preconceived notion in mind, having neither read Portis's novel nor seen the previous adaptation.
I found Tom Chaney and the rest of the villains a great disappointment. This is not a reflection on the cast; Josh Brolin imbues Chaney with as much charisma and presence as he can. The problem is that, within the story, Chaney is more a MacGuffin than a character. He exists solely to put into motion the story being told of how Mattie comes to meet Cogburn and LaBoeuf. The problem is that at no point did I ever feel that our protagonists were in any real danger. Despite its title, I found little grit.
I'm also not sure about Carter Burwell's score. On the one hand, I appreciate that he didn't go for a riff on Morricone or anything garish. On the other hand, I scarcely noticed the music. I know there's a school of thought that a score shouldn't draw attention to itself and while I appreciate that perspective, I'm someone who actively listens for the music in a movie. Apparently, his score was ineligible for consideration for an Academy Award because it incorporated too much previously written material. That is to say, there are several pieces of 19th Century compositions that were selected to authenticate the film's atmosphere.
All that aside, there's much to appreciate here. The pace was taut, the dialog was witty and sharp (though I suspect largely lifted verbatim from the source material). Above all, Hailee Steinfeld was flat-out great as Mattie Ross. No offense to either Abigail Breslin or Dakota Fanning, both of whom have impressed me for a while now, but it was nice to see a young actress other than either of them in such a prominent role. She wasn't just adequate; she was the heart of the film. I can't speak to how Jeff Bridges compares to John Wayne, but I found his performance charismatic. I missed him when he wasn't on screen.
Kudos also to Roger Deakins, the director of photography. He did a great job capturing the gorgeous landscapes. Moreover, there were an awful lot of scenes that were largely just exposition between fairly static people, but felt kinetic because of the way they were shot. If you're considering seeing it, I strongly suggest you catch it on the big screen while you can because that's the best way to really appreciate Deakins's work.
All in all, I felt that True Grit fell a bit short of its pre-release acclaim but was still solidly entertaining. I'm glad my friend Chad rounded us up for the showing, and grateful that my guts cooperated and let me attend.