By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Putting off for a paragraph or so my customary, bombastic analogies and gratuitous citing of metaphors, note that the Coen brothers’ re-creation of “True Grit” is a rip-roaring, sure as shootin’ adventure yarn, by cracky! To borrow from “The Lone Ranger” intro, it stirringly invites you to “Return with us to those thrilling days of yesteryear.”
Harking back to Saturday matinees at the Bijou, the Brothers Coen unreel their contemporary equivalent of a double bill of horse operas, a bucket of popcorn, a box of Goobers and a Coke…a real Coke. For this is full calorie entertainment, unadulterated by artifice or pretense. At least for this one film, our love affair with Westerns is rekindled.
Starring Jeff Bridges, who now progresses from mere Academy Award winner to national treasure as the curmudgeonly yet quixotic Marshal Rooster Cogburn, the tale of revenge pays homage to the 1969 classic while gloriously adding its own imprint. Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon are superb as the other two-thirds of the intrepid troika.
Displaying yet again what fine cineastes and molders of the medium they are, Ethan and Joel Coen startle and abash with the sort of realism Robert Altman brought to the cowboy movie in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). However, while establishing a stark frankness, they also imbue the doings with what is perhaps their most sentimental statement to date.
Just in case you don’t know the tale, note that it follows the exploits of a threesome that evolves out of precocious, lawyerly, 14-year-old Mattie Ross’s (Steinfeld) unswerving desire to avenge her dad’s murder. The dastardly culprit, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) — that’s one of his names— is reported to have hightailed it into Indian Territory.
Arriving in town to search for mercenary help, she learns from more than one source that the one-eyed Cogburn is a man of “true grit.” After much colorful negotiation, she lands his services. But then, just to complicate matters, Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger LaBoeuf arrives on the scene. He’s been tracking the shrewd villain for killing a Texas senator.
Problem is, while the resourceful Miss Ross wouldn’t mind the extra help at no extra cost, it is the righteous Ranger’s intent to bring the criminal back to Texas, where it is expected he’ll be tried and hanged. But that’s too tangential for Mattie. She wants the murderer to know that his wretched fate comes as the direct result of killing her father.
Thus a lively repartee ensues as the unlikely ensemble sets out for hostile parts. In good fashion, the trek takes the form of an odyssey, replete with the Coen brothers’ regular supply of near mythical characters and eccentric intermediaries popping out of the forest scenery. Prepare to hold your horses. There is no shortage of rough-and-tumble action.
Mr. Bridges’s protagonist is as pie-eyed as one-eyed, a delightful, lumbering juggernaut who bathes only in the legend surrounding him. Now at an age, by Old West standards, when it occurs to wax nostalgically, he peppers the landscape with autobiographical anecdotes: a wife that didn’t understand him, a clumsy son he disinterestedly abandoned.
Uncharacteristic, and as surprising as the realization came in David Mamet’s “The Spanish Prisoner” (1997), there is virtually no cursing, no random spewing of four-lettered favorites. While perhaps in deference to the presence of an adolescent lass, this is more likely the behavior of folks figuring to face Judgment Day a lot sooner than later.
Equally interesting, whether researched for authenticity or a calculated supposition, is an often stilted dialogue stingy with its contractions. Romantically hinting at the sociology, and reminding that it hasn’t been that long since the King’s English was relinquished, the filmmakers gift the language with an engaging, period-establishing patina.
But no one’s speech pattern is more profound than Miss Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross. Surely no 14-year-old can extemporaneously expound with the presence of mind shown by this prodigious avenger. But whether citing legal precedent or sleuthing strategy, she soon earns our suspension of belief, underscoring that this is the saga of extraordinary people.
Almost as intense in his raison d’etre and how he proffers it is Damon’s LaBoeuf. A boy scout in the finest sense of the term, his belief in the Texas Rangers’s code is altruistic almost to a fault when you consider that adversaries aren’t about to play as fairly. In fact, his goodness and the loquacious way he advertises it are often a source of comedy relief.
Save for a slight stutter before shifting into high gear at the three-quarter mark, this is fast-moving, ‘I’ll-wait-to-go-to-the-bathroom-later’ entertainment. And yeah, as touching as it is exciting, as melancholy as it is uplifting, the thrilling trail is sprinkled with those aforementioned metaphors. All of which makes “True Grit” stouthearted stuff indeed.
“True Grit,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen and stars Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon. Running time: 110 minutes
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