Sunday, August 14, 2011

"True Grit" (2010)

Starring Haylee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen
Rated R - Language, violence
Running Time: 111 Minutes

As I mentioned in my review of "Cowboys & Aliens," I'm pretty particular about the Westerns that I enjoy.  Occasionally, one comes along that acquires a good amount of accolades, and that makes it an attractive prospect.  2010's "True Grit," based on the 1968 novel, earned some impressive Oscar nominations, from popular and highly lauded filmmakers Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Mattie Ross (Haylee Steinfeld) is a 14-year-old girl who travels to a small town on the edge of the frontier to collect the body of her father, who was murdered by a man named Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin).  While there, she acquires some money and attempts to hire a Federal Marshall to track down Cheney, who has ridden off into Indian territory. 

The man she sets her sights on is Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a drunk with a mean streak, described to Mattie as being without pity.  At the same time, she's contacted by Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon) who has been on Cheney's trail since Cheney apparently murdered a Texas state senator.  At first, the three of them attempt to track down Cheney together, but their personality clashes lead to a rift between Cogburn and LaBeouf and the group goes its separate ways. 

Mattie wants to find Cheney first so that she can watch him hanged for her father's murder.  She knows that if LaBeouf finds him, he'll be taken back to Texas, and Mattie is determined to be the one who brings Cheney to justice for his crimes.

"True Grit" is quite an entertaining film; the characters breeze across the screen with a sort of ease, yet totally commanding your attention.  The script is full of great moments, the characters all well-drawn and lively, and the dialogue finely tuned. 

Part of the appeal is definitely the fine performances from the cast.  Jeff Bridges' rough, irascible 'Rooster' Cogburn is a hoot.  His gruff demeanor betrays a man with a clear sense of purpose and action, one who has no use for bluster or bureaucracy.  He doesn't think Mattie should be going on this journey with him, so he doubles his price... only to use the money to purchase a train ticket home for her.  That he comes to care for her a great deal is a sense that grows apparent throughout the course of the film. 

Matt Damon also does a fine job as LaBeouf, his comic timing producing some really excellent one-liners.  At first, we're led to believe that LaBeouf might be exaggerating his talents, his ego is so obvious, but we learn that he's actually rather capable.  He's put through the ringer, physically, in this film, and Damon pulls off his stubbornness well. 

Young Haylee Steinwell also does a great job as Mattie, a character who could easily be a spectacular failure.  She's intelligent, and gets her way through force of will, but not by whining.  She may be only 14, but she's more learned and mature than any of the adults in the film.  Steinwell's performance is spot-on; she never falters in her portrayal of Mattie as intelligent, willful, but also still inexperienced and a bit out of her depth. 

The violence in the film comes in short outbursts rather than extended action sequences.  But it's all extremely well made, with some excellent makeup and effects work.  And it's all very punchy, and feels meaningful, and shocking.  There's a great scene midway through the film when Mattie and Cogburn find a cabin to take shelter for the night and discover that it's already occupied by "a Methodist and a son of a bitch."  In addition, the final confrontation between Mattie, Cogburn, LaBeouf and Cheney and his gang is fast-paced and highly entertaining. 

I think the only time "True Grit" falters is in some shoddy compositing work at the film's climax.  In a film that was, previously, so beautifully shot to find images at one of the most important parts looking so substandard threw me right out of the picture.  Still, it's a minor problem in an otherwise excellent film.

I was drawn in by the characters, the fine performances and excellent dialogue.  "True Grit" is a worthy Western.