FILM RATING: 3.5 stars
Writers/Directors Joel and Ethan Coen really redefined the idea of remaking an older film with their latest picture, True Grit (2010). For once, Hollywood has actually improved a movie by remaking it, which is more the exception than the rule. But the Coen Brothers really came through with a very good adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, that appears to be nothing like the original True Grit (1969) film, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen. I’m not a John Wayne fan and that movie has looked too silly for my tastes from the bits of it I have seen.
After renting True Grit from Redbox on blu-ray last week, I gotta admit that I wish I had seen this movie in the theater along with all the other great movies I saw in the theater last year. I’ll admit it…I was hesitant because I wouldn’t say that I’m a Coen Brothers fan. So I figured I would wait for True Grit to come out on Blu-ray. And it was a worthy Blu-ray rental for sure. I guess with lower than normal expectations, True Grit surprised me! Although more and more, I’m coming to appreciate the Coen Brothers’ work. While none of their films are in my Top 100 Movies of all time yet, I do really like and appreciate Fargo (1996) and No Country For Old Men (2007)…and now True Grit. Those are their 3 best movies in my opinion, all 3.5 star films.
What struck me right off the bat with True Grit was three things: the cinematography, the writing (i.e. the dialogue), and the acting. All three just impressed the hell out of me in the first 5-10 minutes. I just loved the crazy accents and pronunciations of the very juicy dialogue by everyone. Each actor brought something unique and special to their character, making everyone stand out, yet fit together as a misfit group. I also really loved the production design, because the modern western is something I’ve been into every since Lonesome Dove came out in 1989. Kudos to Production Designer Jess Gonchor.
If there is a singular reason to watch True Grit, it’s the cinematography in my opinion. Director of Photography Roger Deakins is absolutely one of the best in the business. HIs body of work simply astounds me: Thunderheart (1992), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Fargo (1996), Courage Under Fire (1996), Kundun (1997), House of Sand and Fog (2003), No Country For Old Men (2007), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Doubt (2008), The Reader (2008), Revolutionary Road (2008), and The Company Men (2010). And True Grit can now easily be added to that list as one of his best. I’m extremely excited to see his work on Director Andrew Niccol’s upcoming film In Time (2011), coming out in October. The director of Gattaca (1997) has such a striking style, so combined with Deakins eye, it should be a real treat!
Deakins use of light, from bright sunny exteriors, to dark nearly pitch black interiors, to the subtle shades of dusk and dawn, provides a character of its own in this story. All the saturated shades of browns, greens, golds, blues, and other natural tones just pop on the blu-ray. There was no question that I wanted to see this on blu-ray and not on DVD. Its movies like this that High Definition was invented for. I’m naturally a sucker for landscape photography, since that’s my background as a photographer. So I can really appreciate the work that Deakins did here to capture the beauty of “The West”, both in its broad strokes and incredible textured details.
I’ve already mentioned how brilliant the writing of the dialogue is in this movie. The Coens were obviously working with incredible source material from the author, but they also managed to put their unique style for dialogue into the script as well. You can just tell it’s a Coen Brothers movie when you listen to the characters speak. Its almost like there’s a new language called Coenese out there. And of course the dialogue would be nothing without the incredible cast who delivers it with sharp panache. Casting Director Ellen Chenoweth perfectly matched each character with the perfect actor. Or at least the actors left no room for us to wonder.
At the center of the cast are Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, and Matt Damon. If Bridges hadn’t just won the Oscar for Best Actor for Crazy Heart (2009) the previous year, he certainly would have won for this role…even up against Colin Firth in The King’s Speech (2010). Bridges is at his best here, just like I believe he was in Crazy Heart. Steinfeld also gives an amazing debut performance…especially for a 13-year old. But I’m not quite as enthralled with her acting in this movie as some critics and cinephiles have been. I felt it was very good, but not Oscar worthy. To my surprise, Matt Damon really pulls of his comedic role as LaBoeuf. He was funny, charming, and just plain good in this role. Supporting actors Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, and the rest of the bit players, all did a fine job. I couldn’t even recognize Pepper at first…it took a few careful studies of his character to pull the actor out for me.
The sound design and music on True Grit are top notch. Composer Carter Burwell creates the perfect score to accompany this unique story. And Sound Editor Skip Lievsay does a great job integrating all the various sounds together. There are many times during the movie that I really noticed how great the sound is on it. All of the foley work providing every little detailed sound was a perfect complement to the actor’s voices and their unique accents.
While there is a lot to love about True Grit, the story falls apart in the third act. Once we are actually introduced to the bad guys, I started losing interest. Granted there was a lot of great filmmaking craft for me to focus on and keep me partially interested. But emotionally, I felt a bit let down with the resolution of the story. I’m not totally sure why, but I’m guessing that what I was much more interested in was the stories of the three main characters and their dynamics with each other, and less about the actual plot. The bad guys almost didn’t matter and felt a bit forced. It seemed like young Steinfeld’s capture was unnecessary and then hurried to get resolved so that the film could have a happy ending. I’m probably being nitpicky here and maybe I’m wrong. I’ll admit that I really wanna watch this film again in a few months and reappraise it. I just know that I felt like the movie started much stronger than it ended. And so for now, I give it 3.5 stars.
It wouldn’t surprise me if much like all of the other Coen Brothers’ films I’ve seen, that True Grit grows on me over time. I really didn’t care for or get Fargo when I first saw it. But then over time, it grew on me and I appreciated it more and more. I still think it has its flaws, like all of the Coen Brothers films. But I admire them for their unique vision and storytelling interests. And they are clearly incredible filmmakers in terms of their craft. The Coen Brothers could be compared to sauerkraut. You probably don’t like them initially on their own, but you come to appreciate them over time in the right context.