Monday, January 3, 2011

True Grit (2010, Joel and Ethan Coen)

I realize I’m in the minority here, but I personally found A Serious Man to be one of the Coen brothers’ lesser efforts. On one level, it was interesting to see two of American cinema’s most prominent stylists take on a project inspired by their family histories. But while most Coen brothers films inject unique touches into the framework of classical genres, they didn’t have that jumping-off point in A Serious Man. Consequently, the film feels overly fussed-over, with crises and indignities heaped upon a characteristically Coen-esque put-upon schlub. And although this character type anchored great Coen projects from Barton Fink to The Man Who Wasn’t There, without the genre framework to prop him up he’s mostly just a punching bag.

So as you might imagine, True Grit was much more my speed. Making a straight-up Western for the first time gives the Coens ample opportunities to show off their flair for visual panache and vivid supporting characters in a new venue. But while it’s easy to imagine the directors being attracted to Charles Portis’ novel for its tangy use of frontier patois, I also think they were drawn to the strength of its protagonist- no, not cantankerous marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, marvelously dissipated), but steely youngster Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld).

Much has been said about the Coens’ scorn for many of their heroes, but if one looks back at their films, there’s also a pattern of strong women who the brothers seem to genuinely admire. Most obvious among these is of course Marge Gunderson, whose folksy demeanor and unmistakable pregnancy couldn’t hide her canny police work. But stalwart women pop up again and again in their films, from leads like Abby in Blood Simple and Edwina in Raising Arizona to supporting characters like Barton Fink’s Audrey and No Country for Old Men’s Carla Jean, who even in their limited screen time provide emotional grounding for their stories.

Mattie is in this tradition, and Steinfeld is up to the task. Still in her teens, she is nonetheless able to convincingly match up with the Coens’ gifted ensemble, from heavy hitters like Bridges and Matt Damon (as the vain Texas Ranger LaBoeuf) to the directors’ requisite rogue’s gallery of supporting performers, including Dakin Matthews as the irascible Col. Stonehill, with whom Mattie shares a perfectly-realized negotiation scene. In less capable hands, Mattie Ross would have come off not only as a little girl in a tough man’s world, but as a contemporary kid playing dress-up. But Steinfeld proves herself up to the task of selling the stylized dialogue and holding her own with the grown-ups. So near the end of the film, when LaBoeuf demonstrates his respect for Mattie’s skills out on the trail, we can’t help but concur.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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