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True Grit salvaged by Bridges

Shane Steinberg | Friday, January 21, 2011

Joel and Ethan Coen’s faithful adaptation of 1968’s “True Grit,” the film that finally won John Wayne an Oscar for Best Actor, has a style and sensibility about it that only the Coens can pull off, and that might be its only fault.

If the Academy were ever inclined to award an actor back-to-back Best Actor awards, then Jeff Bridges would deserve it for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, the foul-mouthed, irritable gun-slinger whom Wayne made famous 40 years ago. Only, in reality, the Academy would rather spread the love than give the same award to the same person over and over again (think Meryl Streep recycling acceptance speeches every year versus some up-and-comer bawling on stage as her career gets propelled to the next level). Nevertheless, Bridges is nothing short of remarkable, anchoring the film and leaving Wayne’s seemingly unbeatable effort in his dust.

The story follows Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, in a performance that felt forced but nonetheless has garnered her multiple awards wins), a 14-year-old girl whose father was gunned down by an outlaw, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). The smart-talking, determined girl seeks out Cogburn, a U.S. Marshal known for his shoot-first temperament and penchant for whiskey. Cogburn dismisses young Mattie, doubting that she has the lofty payment she promises him, but agrees to team up with her after she swindles a horse dealer out of a small fortune.

The two cross paths with a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, who more often than not fades into the background in an unmemorable performance) who has been chasing Chaney across the country for three years to no avail. What ensues is a Coen-infused Western shot with starry-eyed brilliance and a strong faithfulness to the source material and the genre.

Like their best works, the Coens walk a tightrope between good and evil with an ambiguity hanging over it all. Rather than judge its characters, the film stands back and makes no assertions about Chaney or Cogburn as if to say that maybe there was something downright rotten about both of them — one being the murderer on the run, the other the murderer with a badge. Instead, the story unfolds like a tall Western tale permeated by gunfights, drunken mishaps and an eye for a genre often forgotten by Hollywood these days.

As in many of their films, the Coens bring a light heartedness to a heavy situation. Understandably, “True Grit” isn’t supposed to be some magnum opus of a Western meant to capture our hearts and minds. However, the jokiness of it all, with everyone from Bridges to Brolin acting as though the chase it more of a wild goose chase than the hunt for a cold-blooded murderer, gets in the way of the film’s attempt to build to “the last gunfight”. Whereas Mattie is trying to avenge her father, Cogburn is too busy drunkenly rambling and trying to prove that he can shoot cornbread better than LaBoeuf.

The Coens have a résumé that few in Hollywood can top. With an Oscar for “No Country for Old Men” under their belts, they can afford to create art for art’s sake, or perhaps better put, a Western for their own enjoyment. Perhaps taking on a film that most believed was entirely Wayne’s was their way of indulging themselves in a subject matter/ film dear to them the same way they did in “A Serious Man,” their homage to growing up in a Jewish family in 1960’s Minnesota. Were it not for Bridges, however, True Grit would have been a disappointment.