True Grit: Second best is still a winner

There’s spring, summer, fall, winter, and Oscar season. The good movies are out now, and it’s time to buy those tickets!

Sometimes I feel like it’s easy to be unfair to movies during Oscar season. But maybe it’s just that more demanding standards should be the rule of the day during the rest of the year. At any rate, I’m sure if True Grit had come out this summer, it would have seemed like a shining island in the middle of a river of crap. But now, having just seen Black Swan and looking forward to lots of other films that have generated so many rave reviews, I couldn’t help feeling slightly underwhelmed by this remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic.

I said SLIGHTLY underwhelmed, so don’t sharpen your pitchforks, Coen brothers fans. True Grit is an excellent movie, and I wish it had occurred to me to re-watch the original before I’d seen the new version. But to a certain extent, it’s a relief to have the source material be such a foggy memory. With nothing to compare it to, the crisp dialogue of the Coens’ screenplay shines on its own. Mattie Ross (played by the then 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld) confidently upbraids the slimiest traders and the toughest bounty hunters in an effort to find the man who killed her father. Almost supernaturally determined, Mattie embarks on a revenge mission with gruff U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and idealistic Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).

As with all Coen brothers’ films, the money is in the details. Ol’ Ethan and Joel always manage to pick the finest frigging actors to deliver their lines in such an earnest way that you can’t help laughing, even as you wonder why. Like Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, Frances McDormand in Fargo, and, of course, the Cloonz in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, both Steinfeld and Damon are consistently hilarious. It may be that only those who direct the movies they’ve written are truly able to do justice to such a subtly humorous script, but I’ll get back to you about that when I’ve done an in-depth study.

Jeff Bridges, though, that guy is a different story. Is he capable of putting on a bad show, no matter who’s directing it? He’s not playing John Wayne, he’s playing Rooster Cogburn in his own way: a disgusting fellow with an apparent numbness for killing that we are reminded of more than once — but that does very little to diminish our affection for him. He embodies the spirit of the film: a true Western hero.

And that’s the real aspect that sets True Grit apart from the other Coen brothers films, which are almost always worth their salt. True Grit is 100% genre, bringing us a classic Western, the likes of which I personally haven’t seen since 3:10 to Yuma*. The range of the brothers’ ability is impressive, and it’s always interesting to open the package they present us with year after year to discover what they’ve set their minds to this time around.

The only real weaknesses were what I felt to be an overly long beginning and a rushed end. I was disappointed by how quickly the credits came up, and not in the same way that I am with a movie that I simply wish would just go on forever. For a film that started out so full, it left me feeling empty. In short, my mind remained intact. I wanted it to be blown to smithereens, because I expect every Oscar contender to do so, and it fell just a hair flat. But that’s about a thousand hairs less than most of the movies that came out this year, so I recommend that you get yourself to the theater posthaste.

*I haven’t forgotten There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men (although I did love one and really like the other). While they did take place in the West, they don’t quite count. Here’s some more info on the Western genre.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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