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Do you remember the last time The Coen Brothers oversaw a remake? No? The title, The Ladykillers, should send shivers down your spine. How about the last time a Western movie pierced the cinema going consciousness? Anyone answering No Country For Old Men should understand that its meant in the old fashioned sense of the genre definition, not that Coen contemporary classic. How about Unforgiven, from way back in the gunslinging era of 1992? The point of this meandering wagon trail of an introduction is to dispel any fears that previous director and genre form would affect True Grit. It doesn’t. This is a magnificent piece of grandiose filmmaking in which nobody is firing blanks.
The second adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, rather than a remake of “The Duke” starring vehicle of the same name, True Grit is the notion of someone brave, with a strong sense of self and power. It’s a notion that you’d hardly apply to Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a washed up, morally dubious U.S. Marshall who is reluctantly persuaded to pursue the murderer of Mattie Ross’ (Hailee Steinfeld) father. Insistent on accompanying the curmudgeonly cowboy on his trek to hogtie Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), they set out on a journey, along with a Texas Ranger, LaBeouf (Matt Damon), which tests their own true grit to the limits.
Yeehaw! Where to begin? Let’s start with the mugs adorning the wanted posters, a more appealing ensemble you won’t find. It’s lazy and disrespectful to his performance to label Bridges’ Rooster, as “the dude” in callipers, but that’s essentially what he is; set in his ways but prone to an act of modest heroism, he is one part of a magnificent trio of relationships that dominate the movie over the simple good guys v bad guys plot. His begrudging friendship and hilarious banter exchanges with the increasingly excellent Matt Damon are an unexpected treat in a genre often associated with the gruff loner, it’s almost a bromance.
The fulcrum of the narrative is Hailee Steinfeld’s Oscar nominated performance as the headstrong, oversized hat wearing narrator. Precocious but never obnoxious, dominant but never showy, her chemistry with the two elder statesmen is utterly convincing in a way that makes the latter plot developments completely believable and emotionally satisfying.
This is the Coens, so some things are a given; the script is peppered with fantastic word play – the Damon/Bridges head-to-heads, Steinfeld negotiating for her father’s ponies, and genre stalwart, Barry Pepper chewing the cud with his 10-year old foe. Then there’s the sparse action scenes, immediate and effectively executed, especially during the gung-ho finale.
And stand up Roger Deakins. How this man has failed to win an Academy Award when his cinematography credits include The Assassination of Jesse James, The Shawshank Redemption, and Fargo, is a complete mystery, because thanks to his eye, True Grit is not only funny, tough, and a rollicking good western, but it is also breathtaking to look at.
Despite the minor misstep of a bodged ending, something the Coens are often accused of, True Grit remains old fashioned filmmaking in the “they don’t make em like they used to” mould. Saddle up.