Directed by: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Premise: A remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne, which was adapted from the novel by Charles Portis. In this version, Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, the daughter of a murder victim. She recruits Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) to track down the killer.
What Works: Much of the Coen Brother’s work has been idiosyncratic, to say the least, and sometimes this has worked in pictures like O Brother, Where Art Thou? or The Big Lebowski, when the films were self aware enough to allow the audience a point of entry into the story while also maintaining the Coen’s unique sense of character and tone. In other cases, such as No Country for Old Men or A Serious Man, the films have been so insulated and self indulgent that they often come across as callous toward the viewer. True Grit fits into the former category and is one of the Coen Brother’s most appealing and accessible films. More than any of their other films, True Grit commits to a standard plotline and obeys conventional narrative principles. This makes True Grit far more satisfying to watch than some of the Coen’s more lucid films because it presents the story in a way that audiences will be able to enter into. And while using a more conventional approach to the design and execution of the story, the Coen’s also manage to include some of their characteristic humor and violence and to allow the actors the space to create unique characters in this more conventional setting. Among the actors, the most impressive performance is given by Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. Steinfeld holds her own with a cast of heavyweight actors and she is able to create a character that is determined and empathetic but is also vulnerable. Her presence in the film gives the audience a point of identification and entry into the story. Accompanying Steinfeld on the screen are Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon as LaBoeuf. Bridges disappears into the role and makes what might otherwise be a superhero into a very real character. The same is true of Damon’s performance, who starts out as an arrogant fool but gradually warms to Steinfeld’s character and reveals his own humanity.
What Doesn’t: One of the choices made by the Coen’s in their adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel is to retain the syntax and vocabulary of the characters. This preserves the sense of time and culture of the story and gives the dialogue a unique sound but it also makes some of their ideas difficult to follow.
Bottom Line: True Grit is a very good film and one of the best pictures that the Coen Brothers have produced. In some ways it may be challenging to follow because of the arcane dialogue but the story and characters make it very engaging.
Episode: #321 (January 9, 2011)