The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


True Grit
Jeff Bridges helps Hailee Steinfeld track down a killer.

Most filmmakers are lucky to make one really great film in their career. Joel and Ethan Coen have made several: Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men. Some people would put Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, A Serious Man and O Brother, Where Art Thou? on that list, and I wouldn't be inclined to argue with them. Now the brothers have remade True Grit. Guess what? Another great film. It would be easy to get blasť about the frequency with which the Coens deliver greatness were it not for the thrilling originality of each picture they make. Thank goodness we have them.

Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld marches onto the screen and commands your attention as Mattie Ross, a 14 year-old girl determined to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who ruthlessly killed her father. Mattie intends to hire the roughest, toughest marshal she can find to help her. That would be Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed drunk with a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Cogburn - like most characters in the film - doesn't initially take Mattie seriously, but the girl is wickedly smart, with an ability to see all angles and therefore outmaneuver anyone who tries to tell her no. Reluctantly, he takes the job. She insists on coming with him, partially to make sure he does what she's paying him to do, and partially because she wants Chaney to know that she is responsible for his capture. Matt Damon co-stars as La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who has traveled a long way, also seeking to bring Chaney down. Cogburn doesn't like LaBoeuf because he's arrogant; Mattie doesn't like him because he wants to take the killer to Texas to be tried for a crime there.

The thing about a Coen brothers picture is this: there's the story, and then there's the film itself. Their projects always work on two levels. They tell a good story, yet it's the idiosyncrasies that elevate it into something special. True Grit is no different. On the story side, you have a very absorbing tale of an angry young girl and a grizzled bounty hunter going into the dangerous wilderness to find a killer (i.e. a needle in a haystack). Of course they find him and, of course, there's a lot of suspense when they do. The quest for vengeance is a staple of the Western because it has inherent drama, which the Coens milk for all its worth.

On the idiosyncrasy side, you have really offbeat characters who are not quite what you'd expect them to be. We see Mattie's fierce determination in a glorious, not-technically-required scene in which she barters down a local businessman by flatly rejecting his every lowball offer and threatening him repeatedly with legal tactics. I love the way the Coens will throw in a scene the story doesn't really need simply to show you an important character detail. It's part of what makes their films so rich. (They did something similar with Marge Gunderson's "date" in Fargo.) Then there's Cogburn, who is already a bit left of center, given that he's got one eye and a drinking problem. The first time Mattie approaches him, he's sitting in an outhouse. Later, he forces Mattie to cut a hanging body from a tree, telling her, "I might know him." Le Boeuf, meanwhile, is constantly bragging about how great the Texas Rangers are while at the same time showing little traces of ineptitude.

The supporting characters are just as colorful, and they include an old enemy of Cogburn's, "Lucky" Ned (Barry Pepper), whose teeth are beyond rotted and who drools as he speaks. In many respects, the characters have an outward appearance of fitting the standards of the genre (i.e. hero, villain, sidekick, etc.), but they all slowly reveal quirks and eccentricities that mark them as unique.

Working in a genre as well-defined as the Western gives Joel and Ethan Coen lots of room to play. They find menace where you wouldn't typically expect it, and turn to comedy for some moments that catch you off guard. As in all their best works, you never know what to expect from one minute to the next, which proves to be exhilarating. Even the requisite gunfights are handled in completely original ways, with one of them being essentially a joust with guns. By putting their own spin on things, True Grit can simultaneously please people who love Westerns and people who don't care about Westerns.

The performances are amazing, with Jeff Bridges turning in yet another flawless piece of character work. His Rooster Cogburn is sloppy and cranky, with a love of the hunt being the primary thing that gets him to put the booze down and hop on a horse. As he did in The Big Lebowski, Bridges relishes the odd traits his filmmakers have given his character, so he disappears into them. This is magnificent work. Ditto for Hailee Steinfeld. It's nearly impossible to cast a tween girl who can convincingly intimidate heavyweights like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon on screen. She does it, keeping Mattie's intellect real. Never once does she come off as precocious or like she's faking it. We may have a star in the making here.

True Grit is done with such inventiveness that I was in moviegoing ecstasy. The film constantly surprises and delights you, going ways you don't expect it to, at moments you can't anticipate. It manages to be exciting, dramatic, and humorous, sometimes going back and forth between all three within a single scene. The Western is not considered a thriving genre in Hollywood because so many directors get bogged down with the "essentials" and turn in something that, while pleasant, is more often than not pretty routine. Joel and Ethan Coen show that the Western can still be a vibrant genre by coming in and pumping it full of new ideas and approaches. And in so doing, they grace us with yet another masterpiece.

( out of four)

True Grit is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.