Saturday, January 8, 2011

True Grit Movie Review: Jeff Bridges Dons the Eye Patch for an Iconic Role

Proverbs 28:1 tells us “The wicked flee where none pursueth.” So it is with the coward Tom Chaney, the wanted outlaw in Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Charles Portis’s True Grit. Their title card at the beginning of the film leaves out the second part of that proverb: “But the righteous are bold as a lion.” So it is with Mattie Ross, the 14 year old girl who hires Marshal Rooster Cogburn to take her on an expedition into Indian country to capture the man who shot and killed her father. Although Mattie seeks out Cogburn because she heard he’s a man with “true grit,” the story reveals that in fact she is the one with that attribute.

Of course the novel has been filmed once before, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne as Marshall Rooster Cogburn. It’s one of the iconic Wayne roles and the one that earned him his only Oscar. But it’s important to keep in mind that the Coens have not remade that film. Instead they’ve adapted the novel into their own film, going straight to the source for their screenplay. Looking only at the plot, the two films are almost indistinguishable because, except for a few liberties, both films are faithful to the novel. But where Hathaway’s version puts Cogburn at the center, elevating him almost to epic hero status (the character was written to Wayne’s strengths as an actor), the Coens’ Cogburn as played by Jeff Bridges is less obviously heroic and much more introverted.

The biggest thing they preserve from the novel is that the narrative it is told from Mattie’s (Hailee Steinfeld). She is the meat and Cogburn the gristle that holds the movie together. In Steinfeld, the Coens have found a young actress of surpassing talent. She has to simultaneously express the fortitude and gumption of a seasoned veteran and the lurking insecurities of a young girl. She’s sassy when she’s not taken seriously and brash when doing business. She “hoo-rahs” several characters and she does it to Rooster more than once, according to LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), the Texas Ranger who tags along hoping to capture his own reward for bringing in Chaney.

Damon gives LaBoeuf (he pronounces it “labeef”) exactly the right measure of self-importance. Watch when he first introduces himself to Mattie as he leans back slightly in his chair, turns his head to the side, opens up his coat revealing a badge and smugly pronounces, “I’m a Texas Ranger,” thinking he’s going to impress a young girl with the trappings of his esteemed profession. It’s a hilarious moment – one of several – and sets the tone for the sparring of words that ensues between him and Mattie.

Bridges, providing his every line with a gravelly, almost unintelligible voice, plays Rooster as drunk, foul and dirty. In many ways he is the antithesis to the well-spoken and well-mannered Mattie. This is not the honorable hero Wayne portrayed, but the real anti-hero of Portis’s novel and Mattie’s memory. When we first meet him he’s testifying at a trial of a man he’s brought in, but the prosecutor ostensibly puts him on trial – grandstanding to demonstrate to the jury (and the audience of course) that Cogburn is a man to shoot first and collect rewards later.

I’ve spent so much time on the acting of the principal characters because the performances are the strongest part of the movie. The villains make their entrance late in the film, with an unrecognizable Barry Pepper playing “Lucky” Ned Pepper, the outlaw Chaney has fallen in with. Pepper is an actor I’ve long admired since Saving Private Ryan and this role isn’t quite enough to showcase his talents, but I’m glad the Coens and their casting director saw fit to fill out small roles with significant actors. Josh Brolin holds the part of Chaney well, but I do wish his character hadn’t been truncated so much. I’m not sure if this was done in the writing or the editing stage – the brothers wrote the screenplay, and edited the film under their usual pseudonym, Roderick Jaynes – but we hardly get enough sense of Chaney as a cowardly man who acts like the world is against him.

This is unusual material for the Coen brothers to take on, as was their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and like that film they bring their unique style (aided as always by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins and the composer Carter Burwell, who provides one of the most beautiful and elegiac scores he’s written). It’s probably the least “Coen Brothers” of their movies, absent many of the more bizarre techniques that they developed early in their career and are now the signatures that help identify their work. But like all of their films, it has a quality that gets under your skin and I imagine it won’t soon depart from my thoughts. And perhaps it will be worth revisiting again sometime.

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