(Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2010)
Since they stumbled in the early Aughts with a couple of sub par offerings (INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, THE LADYKILLERS), Joel and Ethan Coen have been on a grand roll. The Oscar winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the comedy hit BURN AFTER READING, and last year's critically acclaimed A SERIOUS MAN were all excellent additions to their canon, but their newest film, TRUE GRIT, may be the best of the batch.
An adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis rather than a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film, TRUE GRIT is in many ways a traditional example of the Western genre. What makes it so much more is its handling of the manner of characters that appear naturalistic yet still exuberantly exaggerated - in a way that long-time followers of the Coens will appreciate royally.
The "Dude" himself, Jeff Bridges, plays U.S. Marshall Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn - an iconic role that is considered one of the most definitive of the Duke's. Bridges owns it here however with a drunken swagger and a grizzled gusto. The real protagonist of the story is the 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who recruits Bridges to help her hunt down her father's murderer (Josh Brolin).
For such a young whippersnapper, Steinfeld has a stern delivery confirming her determination and her sometimes harsh words to Bridges have a sting to them that is more than equal to Kim Darby's readings in the 1969 version. See? It's hard not to compare this film to the original adaptation. They follow the same plot progressions and the spirit of Western homage is certainly present, but the Coens saw the piece as funnier with less Hollywood sentiment and they deliver a film that lives up to their vision gloriously.
Matt Damon, who was long overdue for a part in a Coens production, has a juicy gruff character of his own in Texas Ranger Le Bouef. Damon is at first just along for the ride with Bridges and Steinfeld, but his jaded face-offs with the Marshall and the foes they encounter along the way have a hilarious bite to them as the tension builds.
As a Western in the classic mold with a body count, I didn't expect TRUE GRIT to be as funny as it is - it's for sure one of the Coen's most laugh-filled films since THE BIG LEBOWSKI - just about every utterance of Bridge's is comic gold and his fellow cast mates (including crusty turns by a deranged Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper funnily enough) hold their own humor-wise as well.
Then there's the magnificent cinematography by Coen Bros. collaborator Roger Deakins that fills the frame with striking shots of the blinding terrain in New Mexico and Texas as well as the extreme jolting actor close-ups that flicker with raw emotion. Another Coen Bros. co-hort Carter Burwell, who has been with them since BLOOD SIMPLE (1984), provides a score composed of gospel hymns and effectively spare piano accompaniment.
TRUE GRIT is an instant classic.
From the Coen Brothers' ace direction to the cast's top notch acting spouting out hilarious dialog line after line and then on to the wondrous look, feel, and heart of the film, I honestly can not think of a negative criticism of it. I can't wait to see it again. If I find anything to dislike about it then - I'll get back to you.