Monday, January 3, 2011

True Grit: Coen Brothers + Adaptation = Entertaining Western

I will admit that this is the first movie by the Coen Brothers that I have ever seen and that I have not read the original 1968 novel the movie was based on, and that I have not seen the original 1969 adaptation starring John Wayne. With that in mind, I had mixed feelings about this film from the ads and hearing about the elements usually associated with Coen Brothers movies. However, I decided to give it a chance after seeing the performance of Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy. While watching the movie, I began to enjoy this film beyond my original expectations. What I can honestly say is that the Coen Brothers managed to make an entertaining Western movie that embodies a lot of what a Western is.

The film's main character, 14-year-old Maddie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), is seeking revenge against Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. She wishes to accomplish this by hiring U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). She convinces him to let her go with him after managing to hire Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). What follows is common with Westerns in that the movie is them giving chase to Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), not actually encountering him until the last half-hour of the movie. The character interactions follow common themes of separation and working together later for the sake of Maddie.

As a character, Maddie is very headstrong and mature for her age, boldly commenting on the behavior and mannerisms of others as well as threatening to "bring in her lawyer" should she not be able to do what she feels she needs to do. Throughout the movie, she continues to act this way towards Cogburn and LaBoeuf, but grows to depend on them as the film reaches its climax. This growth made her character more tolerable to me, especially during the ending. Cogburn is your typical lazy drunkard, but tries to display confidence in his abilities despite having only one good eye. LaBoeuf is the opposite, serving as a deadpan snarker to balance out how hammy Cogburn is. Both of them are acted out very well by both Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, who also play off the contrasting personalities very well and often very humorously. One scene where this occurs is one where Cogburn attempts to show that he can still shoot well with one eye, by throwing corn bread in the air and shooting it, which prompts LaBoeuf to join in and throw him off.

I have no idea what happens in the book, but I believe that the movie was very well executed in terms of story. It  had the serious and sometimes edgy atmosphere that I had expected, enhanced by the choice of filming locations in New Mexico and Texas. However, the movie was surprisingly also very funny at times. Reviews of the movie made it sound devoid of this, but I found that it was far from it. The verbal humor, mostly from Cogburn's lazy attitude towards things, comes complete with a droplet of visual and slapstick humor. This balanced the story to me, strategically preventing the movie from becoming as serious as it might have otherwise been. I feel I should say that the ending is darker than you might expect compared to the rest of the movie.

*Spoiler Alert*
True to form, or what I can gather, this movie has a couple gory scenes that the Coen Brothers are known for using in their films. This includes a scene where a man in a cabin has his fingers cut off and the man who did this immediately getting shot in the head by Cogburn. The scene is soon followed by one where Cogburn goes through LaBoeuf’s bloody mouth, with most of the shots focusing on the mouth. The dialogue during this scene certainly didn't help relieve the sickening feeling I had while watching. For me, this was made up for by the occasional gun battles prominent in other Westerns, which gave me a slight adrenaline rush from the sudden burst of action, especially the final battle Cogburn has on horseback against four other men near the end of the movie.
*End Spoiler Alert*

True Grit was a movie that had exceeded my previous expectations, surprising me in the right ways to keep me interested and wondering how the eventual encounter with Tom Chaney would go. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon gave performances that were very entertaining and helped the spirit of the movie. It didn't make me too eager to see more Coen Brothers, but it kept me entertained for a good two hours. If you are looking for a great modern Western or are simply a big fan of the Coen Brothers' work, I can recommend you this movie.

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