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True Grit

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in True Grit.

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in True Grit.

Review – True Grit

– review by Shawn Conner

Somehow, when no one was looking, Jeff Bridges has become one of our most-loved actors – a Hollywood vet with old-school ties and new-school cool. (Bridges can also be seen doing time in Tron: Legacy.) At least part of the latter is thanks to his work as The Dude in the Coen Bros’ The Big Lebowski.

And now here’s Bridges, chewing the scenery and spitting it out in a role that seemed to have been tailor-made for someone – him or John Wayne, who played the hard-drinking US Marshall Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 version of True Grit.

John Wayne in the 1969 version of True Grit.

John Wayne in the 1969 version of True Grit.

The role actually wasn’t tailor-made for anyone, unless Charles Portis, author of the titular novel on which True Grit is based, wrote it with Wayne in mind (which is possible). Whatever the case, Bridges fills Wayne’s boots and then some, giving us the Rooster we didn’t know we wanted – crusty, boozy, half-unintelligible. When we first meet Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn (love that name), he’s just a voice grunting in an outhouse, talking to his future employer, a 14-year-old who is looking to avenge the killing of her father.

As played by Hailee Steinfeld, Mattie Ross is the personification of stubborn determination, and a bit of a righteous prig (she’s obviously destined to grow into a schoolmarm). Josh Brolin plays the killer, Tom Chaney, as a  half-wit only slightly dumber than Brolin’s George W. Bush in Oliver Stone‘s W.

Hailee Steinfeld as the vengeful 14-year-old Mattie Ross in True Grit.

Hailee Steinfeld as the vengeful 14-year-old Mattie Ross in True Grit.

If it seems like I’m spending a lot of time on the performances, it’s because the Coens have made more of an actor’s movie than an action movie. There’s action, but it comes in unexpected bursts and flurries, typical of the Coens. There’s a plot, but more compelling is the dynamic between the characters; the story is more or less vengeance-based, but revenge doesn’t interest the writer-director team as much as it does True Grit‘s young heroine.

There’s lots to like about True Grit, especially in a season of how-low-can-you-go movies. (Or maybe Yogi Bear is a work of cinematic genius, in which case I apologize.) True Grit is smart, funny and full of weirdly eloquent dialogue (as in Deadwood, even the bad guys appear to have dusty copies of Hamlet in their saddlebags). Even Matt Damon as LeBouef, a Texas Ranger “nincompoop” as Rooster calls him, makes you forget he’s Matt Damon.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit.

But there’s also something missing. True Grit is not like No Country for Old Men, another Coen brothers adaptation of a novel, where you leave the theatre feeling like you’ve just seen something, even if you’re not sure what exactly it was. True Grit feels like an entertainment, and sometimes too much so – Carter Burwell‘s score is treacly, and pours sentiment into scenes that don’t need it. There are other uncharacteristic (for the Coens) false notes – a dramatic outdoor night sequence towards the end looks distractingly as though it was filmed on a soundstage. Scenes that should lead to a big pay-off don’t – something that served No Country for Old Men well, but which is unsatisfying in True Grit.

More disturbingly, the movie’s morality is murky – we never see bad guy Lucky Ned Pepper do anything wrong, but because we’re told he’s a bad guy it’s perfectly okay for Cogburn to start shooting. Only Mattie seems to have anything approaching a conscience, but she’s as bloodthirsty as any of them. This is her affair, after all, as she keeps reminding us.

That said, most moviegoers interested in True Grit – whether for the Coens, Bridges, or because it’s one of the few interesting-looking movies at the multiplex post-Christmas – will come away more or less satisfied, if only because the only bear in the movie is a costume worn by a medicine man in the woods.

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