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Review: True Grit (2010)

Directed by: Joel Coen, | 110 minutes | , | Actors: Matt Damon, , , , Barry Pepper, , Jarlath Conroy, Paul Rae, , , , Ed Corbin, , , , Peter Leung , Don Pirl, , , Jake Walker, Orlando Storm Smart, Ty Mitchell, , Scott Sowers, Jonathan Joss, , Brandon Sanderson,

True Grit, the Coen brothers’ first western in the traditional sense, starts off quite dramatically: Frank Ross is shot by his hired helper, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who had lost all his money with cards. Ross’s wife is grievously left with her youngest daughter and son, but eldest daughter Mattie has other plans: to seek revenge – only the death penalty for murderer Chaney will suffice. Mattie, played by 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld in her first significant role, is soon put to the test when she must reclaim her father’s money and try to convince law enforcement to go after Chaney. However, this Indian territory has fled, forcing her to hire a marshall, a covert assassin, to have Chaney killed. She scrapes all her money together and convinces the toughest of them all, Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to take the job. Cogburn was played by John Wayne in the first 1969 film adaptation of Charles Portis’s story of the same name, who has become legendary in countless similar roles and won his only Oscar for this. This was actually more of a lifetime achievement than this role stood out, but that doesn’t stop Bridges from doing everything she can to surpass it. Mattie is looking for true grit, roughly translated as a chunk of raw intransigence, and with visible pleasure Bridges makes perhaps even more work of that than ‘The Duke’ Wayne at the time: Bridges’ Cogburn shuffles more than he walks, is way too fat, mumbles only half intelligible and consistent at the bottle.

Mattie isn’t impressed either way, especially as Cogburn’s work ethic leaves something to be desired. Even when Cogburn wants to leave her in safe territory with Texan LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also chasing Chaney, she travels after them until she is accepted; she wants to single-handedly shoot Chaney with her father’s gun. Despite her youthful age, she is perhaps the most unyielding hero in the entire film and therefore a fascinating spectacle. This is partly due to the impressive playing of Steinfeld, who cleverly combines this intransigence with the youthful insecurity that seeps through it. The difference with the main character in the previous films of the Coen brothers (‘A Serious Man’), the neurotic, complaining and apathetic Larry Gopnik, could not have been greater. Hardly anyone had any doubts about it, but also in ‘True Grit’ the Coens prove to be fantastic filmmakers. Every detail impresses: the horses boast, the prairie wind howls and the revolvers shine seductively. You are inexorably drawn into the Wild West in all its pristine nature. In addition, the Coens have cast another set of actors that every other filmmaker would have to kill for. That pays off: the characters of Bridges, Damon and Steinfeld are often dependent on each other, creating the necessary frictions that bring out the best in the actors. You are inexorably drawn into the Wild West in all its pristine nature. In addition, the Coens have cast another set of actors that every other filmmaker would have to kill for. That pays off: the characters of Bridges, Damon and Steinfeld are often dependent on each other, creating the necessary frictions that bring out the best in the actors. You are inexorably drawn into the Wild West in all its pristine nature. In addition, the Coens have cast another set of actors that every other filmmaker would have to kill for. That pays off: the characters of Bridges, Damon and Steinfeld are often dependent on each other, creating the necessary frictions that bring out the best in the actors.

These are the times when ‘True Grit’ makes the most impression. The Coen brothers are perhaps the best filmmakers of the last two decades and actually deliver something beautiful with every film, but there are still too many comments possible to count this film among their very best. For example, it is striking that, just like in the first film adaptation of this story, melodrama is just a little too much around the corner – especially in the form of the film music. It is precisely the beautiful, all-American-like rawness and intransigence in the film title that make ‘True Grit’ a pleasure to watch, and when that is toned down, it brings the film down. This is increasingly the case as the end approaches, which is not entirely convincing as a mishmash of coincidences with the occasional half convincing deus ex machina – look! Character X is on the scene just in time to bring rescue! – inbetween. Admittedly, that’s what the original story says, but filmmakers are free to deal with it smoothly. In this case it wouldn’t have hurt.

But let’s not exaggerate: ‘True Grit’ is more than worth a look, and there is enough reason to look forward to the next addition to that versatile, untouchable oeuvre of the Coen brothers.

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