Saturday, June 11, 2011

True Grit: Grade C


True Grit (2010)

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld; Co-writers and co-directors: Joel and Ethan Coen.

This remake of the iconic 1969 western starring John Wayne is actually better than that original. I was never a fan of Wayne, nor am I fond of Jeff Bridges. Even so, you have to respect an actor who would attempt a redo of such an iconic role, and Bridges does pull it off. I was always aware that I was watching Jeff Bridges (same reason I didn’t like Wayne), but his character, a whiskey-sodden US Marshall, was strong and almost believable, so he gets away with it.

Fourteen year-old Steinfeld plays a well-educated and articulate (and well-dressed) girl on the Oklahoma frontier who would avenge her father’s killing, so she hires lawman Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to track down the villain with her. Her stylized language is formal and slightly Shakespearean. She uses no contractions and sprinkles her speeches with Latin phrases and legal terminology. It’s not a believable character, but it’s fun. Damon is a bounty hunter also after the killer, played by Brolin, and the two hunters argue and fret over who is responsible for the girl. The Marshal, despite his crude gruffness, develops some affection for the girl, but while the characters are entertaining, none is actually convincing.

I was surprised and disappointed with this movie. I expect a Coen brothers film to be quirky, edgy, and above all to raise sharp existential themes, but this was a straight ahead dusty western with no tricks. And it wasn’t even very dusty. All the sets, props, and costumes were brand new and spotlessly clean, even the train that goes through town in an opening scene. Everyone is in robust health, even the horses. So just like the characters, the settings and scenes are meticulously crafted, but never convincing. So it’s hard to determine what the intent of this movie was. Was it a remake just for the sake of remake?

The cinematography is so incredibly bad in the beginning scenes that I was ready to give up. I knew I just couldn’t endure a movie that bad. Improbable lighting, orange filters, and cameras swooping and panning like a cheap television drama. On top of that was a mind-numbing, content-free voiceover, and an insipid piano track reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary. I’m glad I stuck it out because after 20 minutes, the filmmaking turned competent, and the narrator and the piano disappeared, as did the strange lighting and camera work. All that nonsense reappears momentarily in the closing scene however, so I now believe that those bookends were shot after the main part of the film and tacked on later. Why? Were they a Coen brothers joke? Those two are known to be tricksters. Or maybe somebody thought the film was “too dark”– literally dark, not metaphorically, with many scenes shot at night or on dim interior sets. But whatever the reason for the opening and closing sequences, they are horrible, horrible. The movie overall is not horrible though, just average.

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