Friday, December 31, 2010

True Grit review

With True Grit, it's business as usual for the Coen Brothers. What does that mean? Simply that it's another well-made, well-acted film that delivers the goods. The Coen Brothers are probably the most consistent directors of their time. In the '80s and '90s, every film they made (except Hudsucker Proxy) was either a classic or was nearly a classic. While in the 2000s, they've made a handful of really good-great films, one instant classic, but a couple of misfires along the way.

The misfires, however, seem to be a thing of the past (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers are the films I'm talking about there). Since those two films, the Coens have made four films in four years and those four films would be the envy of any filmmaker working in the business today. No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, and True Grit. Four films that couldn't be any more different from each other and yet have that familiar Coen Brothers stamp. That being said, not all four films are equally great, at least not to me. No Country For Old Men is a classic, a near-masterpiece. But Burn After Reading and A Serious Man are really good, but I wouldn't put them near the top of my fave Coen Bros movies. Considering these are the guys who've made Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski... let's just say they've developed quite a reputation for themselves. In other words, if the last four films they made were made by a young, up-and-comer then I'd probably be a giant fan of this guy and would be hailing him as one of the great original filmmakers of our time. But since this is the Coens we're talking about, they (that is, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man) don't quite live up to their '80s and '90s films. It's kind of unfair but that's the way it goes.

So where does True Grit measure up to their other films? Let me start by saying that this is, by all means, an excellent film. Hailee Steinfeld (who plays Mattie Ross) is simply perfect as the stubborn, tough 14 year old girl who will stop at nothing to avenge her father's death. Jeff Bridges probably gives one of his greatest ever performances as the deputy Rooster Cogburn. Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, while their parts are comparatively small are very effective as the dirty, scummy bad guys. And while Matt Damon comes off as the weaker link of all these actors (perhaps because he doesn't get the best lines), he's still pretty solid.

The story is engrossing and well-written and it's funny throughout. The Coens do a great job of not allowing the Mattie Ross character to take away from the rough nature of the rest of the characters. I was surprised that this film got away with PG-13 because there are some pretty graphically violent scenes in this film. The cinematography and the score of the film fit perfectly and it's one of the best looking Westerns that I've seen in recent memory (although, it doesn't hold a candle to The Assassination of Jesse James, then again that was perhaps one of the best looking films of the 2000s).

So if True Grit is all these things, why is it that I can't embrace the film fully? First of all, the ending of the film kinda felt like an afterthought. While the first 4/5s of the film was highly entertaining, it just kinda crapped out after that with a little epilogue. And after seeing Black Swan, which saved its greatest tricks for the end, True Grit seemed to have ran out of tricks by the end. Also, while this can be justified by the fact that it's told primarily through the eyes of the 14 year old girl, in a way, that could have also been a shortcoming. There was never really anything threatening about the bad guys (including the man who killed her father). You believed that the man was scum, but it's an example of how showing is a lot more effective than seeing. We only believe Josh Brolin's character is bad because of what LaBouef and Mattie Ross tell us, but because we don't see just how bad he is, when you finally are introduced to him, you don't really get much out of it. Plus, the confrontation between Tom Chaney's (Brolin) men and Cogburn/LaBeouf feels too rushed. What should've been the centerpiece of the film is over before you know it and that was disappointing.

Those things can be easily forgiven because there are so many aspects of this film that are strong. But that's the case with a lot of Coen Brothers films lately. In the '80s and '90s, majority of the time, they were so tight and compact and well-constructed that none of these sorta issues came up. And even with a film like Barton Fink, which does drag at times, saves itself by having such an effective 2nd half.

So, overall, what this means is that we're left with another strong, well-made, excellent film from the Coens that just misses true greatness.

rating: 8/10

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