A truly fun western ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A truly fun western

True Grit
My rating:

I dig westerns, man. Who wouldn't? They are the American equivalent of Chinese wuxia, Japanese chanbara or European swashbucklers - stories of larger-than-life heroes and villains and battles between good and evil in wild, lawless lands. In other words, they are fun, and I feel sorry for folks who don't feel the same. I think it was the 1993 film Tombstone that first turned me on to them, when I was in my impressionable mid-teens; that was a western that aimed for Badass and Epic and hit them dead-on. And I think that movie pretty much coloured my impression of what a western should be.

I guess that's why it took me two viewings to appreciate True Grit for what it is.

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) seeks revenge for her father, who was shot and killed by a low-down dirty dawg named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). The authorities are uninterested in chasing Chaney into the Indian Territories where he has fled, so Mattie engages the help of crusty old U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whom she heard is a man of "true grit"; they are also joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who wants Chaney for another murder he committed in Texas. Their journey will be fraught with peril from man and nature alike, not to mention the uncivility between Cogburn and LaBoeuf. And when they catch up with Chaney, they will also have to contend with the outlaw gang he has taken up with, led by the criminal "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).

The films of Joel and Ethan Coen are an acquired taste. I haven't watched them all, but of the ones I have, I liked Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? most; the former is their most broadly comedic, and the latter just puts a grin on my face from start to finish. Their other movies have been hit or miss with me, frankly, and tend to leave me cold - especially their dramatic ones. They have a unique sense of humour that always strikes me as good-naturedly goofy, which makes it jarring when it turns out it's not meant to be good-natured, it's meant to be dark and cynical. And even when they're just aiming for comedy, I always feel like the jokes would be funnier they pushed the goofy level up a bit.

But in this film's case, it didn't even take me till my second viewing for me to reconsider my initial impression of it. You know how some movies are decently enjoyable to sit through, then it hits you two hours after you leave the cinema how dumb it was? (*coughTransformerscough*) True Grit had the exact opposite impression on me; the more I thought about it after I watched it, the more I admired it. What I got most out of it was its take on the theme of revenge - because that's what Mattie is really after, not "justice", and the film is nice and subtle about it and never lets the tone get too dark. The movie's trailer features Johnny Cash singing "God's Gonna Cut You Down" over it, and you'd think at first that the song refers to Tom Chaney and the retribution that's coming for him for his crime.

In fact, Chaney is only one of three characters who get what's coming to them in this story, which leads to a wonderfully bittersweet ending. And the Johnny Cash song may not be in the movie, but the adult Mattie hints at it in her opening narration when she says, "You must pay for everything in this world, one way or the other. There is nothing free except the grace of God." The fates of those three characters prove the truth of what she says - whether it is to be shot and killed in the same way as one has killed so many others, to pay a lifelong price for one's naivety and bloodthirst, or even to earn God's grace with a singular act of heroism that redeems a life of sin. (For good measure, this theme is even repeated a number of times in a couple of minor characters, again in nice and subtle ways.)

Another theme is in the title, and what it truly means. Mattie hires Cogburn because she's heard he's a man of "true grit", and take note of what she thinks it means in her first impressions of him. Later, she earns his respect by crossing a perilous river on horseback, making you think that perhaps she's the one to whom the title refers. But the film goes on to redefine its meaning a good two or three more times; take the character of LaBoeuf, and the contrast between him and Cogburn. One thinks he's a hero, talks and behaves as if it's a given that he's a hero; the other most assuredly does not, but rises to the occasion when called. The conclusion it leaves you with is that true grit is not one thing; it is a many-faceted thing, and even the unlikeliest people can display it at the most unexpected moments.

Yes, the acting is (mostly) terrific. Hailee Steinfeld is as good as you've heard, particularly if you've heard that this is her first ever performance in a major motion picture. Mattie is headstrong, whip-smart and boundlessly confident, and Steinfeld is also all of these things, at the age of 13 when she made this film. Even more talked-about than Steinfeld is Jeff Bridges playing the role made iconic by John Wayne in the 1969 version, which I haven't seen (a shameful admission for someone who professes to like westerns, I know). I can't compare the two - except that Bridges' delivery of the movie's most famous line beats Wayne's easily - but Bridges is terrific here, making Cogburn equal parts hilarious, pathetic, and supremely badass. As for Matt Damon, I can't help but wish he'd played LaBoeuf a little broader and played up the comic relief of the character a bit more. I have no doubts that he's versatile enough.

But he is, after all, working under the Coen brothers' direction. And this is still a Coen brothers film, with their trademark quirky humour and deliciously mannered dialogue. (Oh, did I mention the dialogue? It's terrific. It's yet another thing about westerns that I love, and the Coens' writing style fits it to a T.) And you know what I got out of my second viewing? It is fun, in all the ways a western is fun. It's a rousing adventure through gorgeous landscapes with a spunky heroine and two tough guys, and it is extremely well-crafted. (And it probably helped that the audience at the second viewing were much more appreciative of the humour.) If you're not a fan of westerns, this may not be the best movie to introduce the genre to you; I'd still recommend Tombstone for that. But if you are - or if you're a fan of the brothers Coen - this is a must-watch.

Expectations: no idea what to expect, because everything I've read about it does a lousy job of telling me what to expect


profwacko said...

where do you watch this movie so early??

McGarmott said...

Okay, if you watch Black Swan at the cinemas, please do not write a review of it, coz it won't be representative of the film as intended by the director.

TMBF said...

@profwacko: Early? It's been in cinemas for the past week.

profwacko said...

really ?? i always check on the nearest TGV Bkt Raja here, the movie will b shown not until this friday. I guess u watched it at GSC mayb. TGV failed me this time.. huhu.

definitely will watch this movie.

Wowwww said...

I actually agree with you. I actually had high expectation for the movie. I mean the character played it well and the plot, well, I thought it was going to end with a bang but I was left disappointed.
-Ellen W