By Malice Intended of Planet Ill
Young Mattie Ross (Elizabeth Marvel) arrives in town to identify and collect her father’s body, hoping to bring his killer to justice. To do this, she retains the services of Deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Though perpetually inebriated, Cogburn is quite handy with a six shooter. Against his better judgment, Cogburn allows young Mattie to accompany him on his mission. They cross paths with the proud, yet inefficient Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon). Together, the unlikely threesome seek to make the cowardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) answer for his various crimes.
True Grit is not a remake of the Oscar Winning John Wayne vehicle, but an adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. Unlike many modern Westerns, True Grit does not see the need to cater to modern sensibilities. It views the Old West through a decidedly traditional mindset. Viewers who seek a deconstructionist take on the material should keep on looking. This is an old style ride, aimed squarely at those who know how to appreciate such things.
The Coen Brothers have always had a knack for the machanics of cinema. In their lesser films, that facility exists for its own sake. Here, it is muted but purposeful. The characters wander through Godforsaken country where the stench of death is everpresent. The dusty browns and yellows of desert terrain give way to the cold grays of dead trees in quiet forests. The images are striking without being overly manicured or artificially “beautiful.”
The violence of the film is more graphic than that of the classic Westerns, but handled in much the same manner. The Coens are not interested in constructing a morality play in the vein of Unforgiven. The carnage has impact, but it does not exist for its own sake nor obtrusive.
From a writing standpoint, the film carries many of the Coen’s hallmarks, particularly their love of language. The characters of True Grit speak with an eloquence that was likely not the norm in the Old West. However, the dialogue adds to the mythic quality of the film. It also provides ample opportunities for the Coens’ odd sense of humor to manifest, underscoring the often grim seriousness of the subject matter.
Jeff Bridges is in his element as the scraggily Rooster Cogburn. His face hidden beneath an eye patch and a bushel of gray whiskers, Bridges grumbles most of his dialogue in a nearly unintelligible voice. His physical mannerisms tell us all we need to know. Matt Damon, more accustomed to being the heroic adventurer, does a great job as the straight man. Many of the jokes are at his expense, and he takes it in stride. Elizabeth Marvel renders Maggie Ross as believably as anyone could hope for.
The only real shortcoming of True Grit is that the villain could have used more screen time. Josh Brolin is suitably slimy as Chaney, but the film hardly gives the audience a chance to get to know him. He is merely the focus of the quest. This is disappointing as the other characters are well developed and very colorful. Still, this slight oversight is not enough to derail the film.
True Grit is a compelling and gripping Western. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it goes a long way in vindicating the classic Western. The Coen Brothers assert that everything need not be viewed through a veil of irony or political correctness. Stories like True Grit have endured for a reason. They should be delivered to the screen with a reverence for traditional storytelling. True Grit pulls off that feat admirably. 4 out of 5
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