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True Quality in True Grit



By Anthony Lauriello     1/13/11 6:00pm

As a general rule, I try to eschew teen girlpower coming-of-age stories. Yet I could not resist abandoning my initial misgivings and going to see True Grit, a Western written and directed by the famous Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo), and a remake of the 1969 film with a 14-year-old heroine. Fortunately, my fears of pink cowgirl boots and ribbons on ponies quickly disappeared as the young Mattie Ross ("Grand Cru"'s Hailee Steinfeld) earned her place among the gunslingers of Sergio Leone and Tom Ford films.The film opens with an older Mattie narrating the story of her father's murder as the audience sees his body lying in the snow. This is the first, and certainly not the last, example of the Coen brothers' macabre brushstrokes on the canvas of the American West. The story begins shortly after the homicide when the precocious teenager heads to the frontier to bring back her father's body and settle his accounts. After securing the coffin and adroitly haggling with a former business partner of her father, Mattie moves on to her ultimate goal: avenging her father's death.

To satiate her bloodlust, Mattie contracts U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (The Big Lebowski's Jeff Bridges) to track down her father's assassin, Tom Chaney (W.'s Josh Brolin) in Choctaw territory. Although Mattie rejects Texas Ranger LaBoeuf's (The Departed's Matt Damon) offer to help track Chaney down for a murder committed in the Lone Star State, Cogburn accepts it, and the three unlikely partners begrudgingly join together and go off into the wild for some Old Testament justice.

The Coen brothers craft True Grit with the exceptional care and detail that has catapulted them into Hollywood's elite. Like their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, the movie is mostly filmed in New Mexico, and the amazing scenery of plains and mountains is given in ample and appropriate time for a genre that is as much about setting as it is plot.

Carter Burwell, while certainly no Ennio Morricone, crafts a soft, piano-heavy score that works well in the context of a movie that is more of a character study than a sweeping epic. Not surprisingly, the Coen brothers have written another amazing screenplay. Like many of their previous films, death and violence are central themes but are portrayed in a matter-of-fact, simple and unassuming way. Always masters of diction, the brothers outdid themselves in the dialog of the film. The combination of sophisticated 19th-century language with the colloquialisms of the frontier create some of the greatest conversations heard in any Western.

The estimable acting of the film also deserves attention. Veteran actors Bridges and Damon deliver quality performances and the Academy is almost guaranteed to nominate the former for Best Supporting Actor. This is particularly noteworthy, considering the fact that John Wayne won an Oscar for playing Cogburn in the 1969 version. While Bridges could never live up to "the Duke," he does an excellent job filling his predecessor's cowboy boots.

The greatest performance belongs to 14-year-old Steinfeld. The relatively unknown actress holds her own with some of today's biggest actors and succeeds in realistically depicting a character who is not only uncompromising in the pursuit of justice but also a young girl with real emotions. The film depends on the juvenile thespian and Steinfeld deserves a nomination for Best Actress.

With so much derivative drivel coming out of Hollywood's studios, the Coen brothers once again show that movies need not insult the intelligence of their audiences. The film not only entertains but also raises questions about morality and death. The fascinating relationship between Cogburn and his young employer achieves a sublime level of poignancy.

While I will not spoil the ending, the closing scene of the film shows that the two are both heroes of the old West, not only because of their "grit" and individualism but also their inability to fit into society. It is a truly American story and a welcome change to modern cinemas. The Coen brothers and their amazing cast prove that movies can have mass appeal without sacrificing their quality and that we still have a lot to learn and appreciate from Westerns.?

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