Posted by Nick Ondras on January 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm
In 2007, before director James Mangold made the destructive Knight and Day (which was, oddly, one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies of 2010) he did 3:10 to Yuma, a fun dip into a genre ignored of late: a flat-out Western. And over the years it’s rarely shown up without a little stylization thrown in for measure (Tarantino’s own Kill Bill movies, for example.) It’s not like they’re real difficult things to craft; to send up an Eastwood or Harald Reinl film, their widely recognizable choices of prose, fun as they are, requires certain drab and tired elements to get it to hit notes of nostalgia. So current masters of genre shake-ups Joel and Ethan Coen, following literary terms previously tried by Henry Hathaway and John Wayne, the latter of which won a Best Actor Oscar for, 1969’s True Grit, based on Charles Portis’ novel of the same name, it shouldn’t have been more than an exercise for the two and a given Academy Award here or there; True Grit is already far financially surpassing any other Coen flick before it.
The movie isn’t obsessed with film like that of Tarantino’s. Here’s where Grit gets it right: brazenly directed, brilliantly scripted, and it’s bold, baby, bold. Releasing a Western in a time regularly reserved for the likes of Yogi Bear and Tron: Legacy, or hell, in general, is a risky task. But every lick of True Grit is a dusty homage to once-booming cinema Americana; in the ways No Country for Old Men was heavy True Grit is breezy and incredibly dry. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld gives everyone a run for their money as Mattie Ross, still a kid and albeit a girl at that in the eyes of a grungy town who after a public spectacle of a hanging trots down U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, played with a mix of slapstick and know-it-all elderly cynicism by Jeff Bridges, at a murder trial to help her in finding Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father in cold blood. Tagging along is La Boeuf, Texas Ranger and a character Matt Damon really sinks his teeth into.
I won’t dance around the point with fancy words and bore you with allegorical phooey the Coens try to manage here – because they don’t. I love True Grit to its blackness of a core, and for perhaps the first time in any of Joel and Ethan’s movies this one isn’t bleak. It’s funny, heartfelt, and confident in pushing its audience not only to accept that they’re not going to let up any on that this is completely a genre film, but to plant them in their seats and give them class-act storytelling at its finest to replace any thumb-sucking for high-flying action. This is not an action movie, nor is it a send-up: the Coen brothers see to it through and through that nothing of the sort creeps in when it isn’t called for. As for it being overrated? Forget about it.
The motivation behind the duo’s decision to translate another interpretation of Portis’ novel for the big screen has been put into question as more an “assignment fulfilled” than anything else, but it might be that True Grit was released today that grants it special significance. The bar’s been raised again. True Grit, one of the year’s absolute best, is a drunken godsend running on token black humor, a dark homage to the long-forgotten Western film genre where its heart for sympathy and retribution should be.