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Jason Wallis Coens delicately master ‘True Grit’

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2010 7:06 am

Happy New Year to all, and I hope everyone had a great Christmas. Mine was a quiet affair, with Heather and me relaxing with a few bottles of wine and a stack of DVDs, including “Nation Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Scrooged,” “A Muppet Family Christmas” and, of course, “Die Hard.” In a word: perfect.

New Year’s will be largely the same, and I’ve got my copies of “When Harry Met Sally …” and “The Poseidon Adventure” all ready to go. (And another viewing of “Die Hard” never hurt anyone.) I’ve also got a few more movies to catch up with before I attempt to draft a respectable top 10 list for next week, although I fear that some of the films I was most looking forward to seeing -- “Another Year” and “Blue Valentine,” most notably — will not be opening around here in time. But I shall make due.

Meantime, we’ve got a look at one of the films that will surely be appearing on that list: the Coen brothers’ delightfully old-fashioned, audience-friendly adaptation of “True Grit,” with Jeff Bridges taking on the role of “Rooster” Cogburn, originated by John Wayne in the 1969 film. It’s easily the Coens’ best and most entertaining effort since “The Big Lebowski” (interestingly enough, their only other collaboration with Bridges), and is certainly your best bet for family entertainment this holiday season.

The filmmakers behind such adult-oriented movies as “Blood Simple,” “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” might not seem like the most logical choices to adapt Charles Portis’ classic western “True Grit,” about a 14-year-old girl who forges an unlikely bond with an ornery pseudo-lawman during their hunt for her father’s killer. But the Coens are always full of surprises.

They’ve dealt with lighter material before (“Raising Arizona,” “The Big Lebowski”), and with “No Country for Old Men” they displayed a clear knack for working with a Western motif. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the delicacy with which the Coens handle “True Grit,” which is essentially a heartfelt family film set against a violent backdrop.

In tone, it’s unlike anything the typically ironic filmmakers have given us before. If “No Country” was their grim take on the modernist post-Western, then “True Grit” is their earnest celebration of the classical Westerns of directors like Howard Hawks and John Ford. It’s still functions as a (relatively violent) revenge yarn, but the film is far more concerned with character-building and dialogue than gunplay.

In her film debut, Hailee Steinfeld stars as Mattie Ross, a young girl whose father was recently gunned down in a petty robbery. Determined to see his killer captured and hanged, she enlists the help of U.S. Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a drunken war vet who is at first reluctant to accept the job. Stubborn and cunning beyond her years, Mattie convinces Rooster to help her, and together with an idealistic Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who’s been tracking the outlaw for years, they set out on their hunt.

The film is being casually referred to as a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film, and though I have not seen the original in its entirety, I’ve seen enough to know that in the process of adapting Portis’ novel, the Coens have made this story completely their own.

After our heroic trio embark on their quest, the film takes on an almost surreal, odyssey-like structure that is distinctly Coen. Aided by longtime collaborator Rodger Deakins’ stunning cinematography (best evident, perhaps, in the mind-blowing opening shot), the filmmakers achieve a kind of waking-dream vibe that fits naturally with the story’s “hero’s journey” coming-of-age theme. On a technical level, the movie is flawless — and clearly the work of visionary filmmakers who know how to adhere to a unique style, to put their brand on a film, without ever becoming stale.

It helps that “True Grit” features what is, for my money, the year’s most engaging screenplay. The dialogue stings and crackles with the rat-a-tat flair of “old-school” masterworks like “His Girl Friday” and “Chinatown,” and although the exchanges often  come at a rapid pace, you can’t help but hang on every single syllable. This screenplay is brought to life with panache and precision by a stellar cast, with newcomer Steinfeld emerging as a standout with a layered, semi-stoic, semi-vulnerable performance.

It seems to me that Damon was a tad miscast as the boyish LaBoeuf, but he ends up doing a serviceable job with a slightly under-written role. And as the murderous outlaw, who looms like a specter through the film’s first hour and a half before appearing for the climax, Josh Brolin crafts a unique, effective and entirely unexpected characterization that throws you for a loop in the best of ways.

But in the end, isn’t it all about Bridges? He’s front-and-center for most of the film, and despite its other accomplishments, the movie absolutely depends on Bridges selling this very broad, borderline-cartoonish performance. But sell it he does, from his first comic scene in an outhouse to the dramatic finale in which the nihilistic Rooster must confront his own humanity and capacity for love. Sounds kinda goofy and cheesy, but with the Coens at the helm and Bridges at the center of it all, “True Grit” stands as a testament to the power of old-fashioned, earnest storytelling.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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