A tight, concise Western that pays more homage than it does re-invent the genre, 'True Grit' isn't quite the masterpiece some were expecting, but it's so much fun to watch that many will leave the theater thirsting for more ... of everything. Ethan and Joel Coen won a Best Picture Oscar for their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 'No Country for Old Men,' a contemporary Western that was bold, brutal, and beautiful. That film essentially handed Josh Brolin a career upgrade (and Javier Bardem an Oscar), but it was also something of a comeback for the Coen brothers as well. Before 'No Country,' they had turned out three films in a row that, while fine and entertaining in their own unique ways, weren't exactly on the same cult-status level as films like 'Fargo,' 'The Big Lebowski,' 'Miller's Crossing,' 'Raising Arizona' ... and 'The Hudsucker Proxy.' (Sorry, I had to sneak it in there.)
After having tremendous success with one Western, the Coen boys decided to give it another go with 'True Grit,' which is both a remake of a 1969 John Wayne film and an adaptation of a Charles Portis novel. It's easy to see why the brothers would opt for 'True Grit' -- its quirky storyline and slightly hokey characters play right to the filmmakers' strengths. It's a film that also allows them to overdose on vibrant, scenic shots of rural America during the 1800s; to bask in hard-boiled and savory dialogue, and to introduce the world to a new, gotta-put-her-in-everything-right-now young actress. The 1969 'True Grit,' like those three Coen bros. movies before 'No Country,' will always have a place in our nostalgic hearts, but the 2010 version kicks it up a notch, proving that great actors tend to age like fine wine, becoming ever more enjoyable with each new performance. One could easily say that about the Coen brothers as well.
Let's get this out of the way right now: Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld own this film, every inch of it. The entire cast is fantastic, with special kudos to Josh Brolin and an unrecognizable Barry Pepper (see if you can spot him), but there's not a moment that goes by in the film when you're not itching to see Bridges' Marshal Reuben J. Cogburn and Steinfeld's Mattie Ross share the screen. The two make up the most memorable on-screen duo we've seen all year -- a beaten-up, smelly, drunken U.S. Marshal and a whip-smart 14-year-old negotiator -- and every scene they share is one you're going to want to watch again. One particular scene early in the film, which sees young Mattie Ross trying to sell back the horses her recently-assassinated father bought, is flawlessly executed and effortlessly charming.
Joel and Ethan Coen clearly had a lot of fun with this one, and it shows up on the screen. They've tapped into everything we love about the Western -- from its hard-edged poetic dialogue to its epic gunfights -- and they've delivered a surprisingly not-too-violent familiar film on their terms, with Coen veterans, little-seen newcomers, and (oh, yes) Matt Damon. The third piece of the puzzle, Damon -- who plays the sly, dry-witted Texas Ranger La Boeuf -- keeps his character at a distance. He's there long enough to admire, but not long enough to become invested in. Damon's performance is admirably subtle; he blends in quite smoothly, like a character actor would. No movie star italics this time out.
'True Grit,' like the 1969 version (and the book), follows 14-year-old Mattie Ross as she travels to Arkansas to hire the town's greatest lawman to assist her in the capturing of her father's killer. She eventually hooks up with Cogburn, a semi-famous Marshall who's seen better days, convincing him (with cash, of course) to help her hunt down the killer, a dumb thief with nothing to lose named Tom Chaney (Brolin). Ross soon learns that a Texas Ranger (Damon) is also in town, and that he's pursuing Chaney ever since he killed a Senator back in Texas. The three then spot a chance to work together, dysfunctionally of course, and off they go to get their man.
If there's one downside to the film, it may be that it's a a bit too quick. At 110 minutes, this type of film feels short, if only because you don't want to stop watching these characters and their adventures. Brolin and Pepper are too good in their roles to only see them for a handful of minutes. The short running time is usually a pleasure, and it definitely works in the favor of their previous films, 'Burn After Reading' (96 minutes) and 'A Serious Man' (106 minutes), but with 'True Grit' -- even if that's all they had to work with, storywise -- it feels "faster" than one would like. (On the other hand, you know what they say: always leave an audience wanting more.)
Ultimately, though, if your biggest gripe about a flick is that you wish it was longer, then that's probably a darn good film. 'True Grit' might not go down as one of the Coen's most "unique" experiments, but it sure might be recalled as one of their coolest.