True Grit (2010) [Blu-Ray]
Director : Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Screenplay : Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (based on the novel by Charles Portis)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper), Dakin Matthews (Col. Stonehill), Jarlath Conroy (Undertaker), Paul Rae (Emmett Quincy), Domhnall Gleeson (Moon (The Kid)), Elizabeth Marvel (40-Year-Old Mattie), Roy Lee Jones (Yarnell), Ed Corbin (Bear Man), Leon Russom (Sheriff), Bruce Green (Harold Parmalee), Candyce Hinkle (Boarding House Landlady)
One of the primary pleasures of Joel and Ethan Coen’s career over the past three decades is not confined to the individual films themselves (although more than half of them stand as some of the best American cinema of their era), but in their relation to each other. Never content to repeat themselves despite a clear set of recurring thematic convictions and stylistic tropes, the Coens have defined themselves by jumping from one genre to the next, rarely covering the same ground twice and always setting their latest film in stark juxtaposition to their previous. Thus, they followed their auspicious debut, the Texas-set neo-noir Blood Simple (1984), with the antic, cartoonish comedy of Raising Arizona (1987), which was then followed by the elegant gangster drama Miller’s Crossing (1990). Most recently, they followed their austere, Oscar-winning neo-western No Country for Old Men (2007) with the ridiculous international conspiracy caper Burn After Reading (2008) and the Biblical tragicomedy A Serious Man (2009).
Thus, what they would do next was anyone’s guess, although I would bet no one speculated that they would tackle a straightforward remake of one of the most cherished of westerns, True Grit (1969), a film for which the iconic John Wayne, then in the twilight of his career, won an Oscar. Yet, here we are, with the Coens giving their take on the material, which sticks closer to Charles Portis’s 1968 novel (including the first-person narration by 14-year-old Mattie Ross) and replaces the Duke with Jeff Bridges, whose previous collaboration with the Coens 12 years ago in The Big Lebowski (1998) resulted in the creation of Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude,” one of the most cultishly revered characters in modern cinema. I doubt that Bridges’s take on Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, the aging, surly, drunken federal marshal at the heart of True Grit, will develop such a rabid following, although that should not be taken as a knock on Bridges’s performance. Rather, he so fully inhabits the grizzled, cantankerous character, particularly in his mush-mouthed growl, that you forget he is an actor playing a role. In the tradition of Bridges’s best performances, he fully disappears. The Coens do something similar, as they reduce the irony and caricature that frequently defines their films in favor of a more direct approach to the genre material, resulting in a film that is consistently engrossing and suspenseful, with flashes of dark humor that offset the gradual revelation of genuine sentiment.
As in the novel and the original film, the primary character is really Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), a headstrong 14-year-old who marches into the frontier town of Fort Smith, Arkansas, to settle the affairs of her father, who was gunned down by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie’s unwavering intent to avenge her father’s death brings her to Rooster’s door, which happens to be the door to an outhouse where Rooster is determined to spend quite a bit of time and refuses to come out. As she does with everyone with whom she does business (including a horse trader played by Dakin Matthews), Mattie eventually wears Rooster down with her furrowed resilience and lightning fast tongue, and he agrees to find Tom Chaney (Mattie is, in many ways, the perfect vehicle for the Coens’ love of twisting turns of phrase and rapid-fire dialogue, which here combine the saltiness of the horse opera with the deft fluidity of a screwball comedy). Rooster tries to resist her tagging along, but she insists, as does a humorless Texas Ranger named LaBouef (Matt Damon), who has been tracking Chaney for several months and wants to bring him to justice for shooting a senator and his dog in Waco.
Once again shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has worked on virtually all of the Coens’ films since Barton Fink (1990), and scored primarily to old hymnals, True Grit is a gorgeous western that revels in the contrasting widescreen glories of open landscapes and hardened faces. The Coens have always loved the details of time and place, and True Grit evokes the barely civilized wilderness of post-Civil War Arkansas with both power and dark humor. They establish the stakes of frontier justice by introducing Rooster in a courtroom where he fails to prove self-defense in gunning down several outlaws, which only stokes Mattie’s resolve to have him in her service. Mattie is the very epitome of civilization, with her fresh-scrubbed face and perfected twined pigtails, yet she is every bit as relentless and savage in her quest for justice as Rooster, albeit without any direct experience of what her endeavor will entail. The film makes no qualms about the nature of their quest, particularly in a scene in which Rooster and Mattie’s interrogation of a desperate young outlaw nursing a leg wound and his burly partner turns into a sudden explosion of violence that pushes the film’s PG-13 borders.
Often derided for being cynical and ironic at the expense of character and emotion, the Coens display a flair for sentiment in True Grit that might be surprising, even to those of us who have long held that such criticisms are inflated and often off-base. When played by Wayne, Rooster Cogburn was a larger-than-life screen presence who worked as a not-so-subtle parody of Wayne’s iconic status, but as embodied by Bridges, he is a more complex entity, a man who is both pathetic and impressive. Frequently drunk, sometimes unintelligible, and always brusque, Bridges’s Rooster is an enigmatic character who grows on us, so that when the narrative eventually demands that he step up and play the traditional hero, it actually works. The mythical manner in which the Coens depict Rooster’s third-act heroics, which involve both cunning and almost superheroic determination, cuts through all stylish pretense and asks us to accept it on a purely emotional level. It works beautifully, carrying us right along with the wounded characters and arriving at an epilogue of simple, poetic beauty. I don’t suppose it would be much of a stretch to imagine that the Coens’ next film will be some kind of zany comedy.
|True Grit Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish, Portuguese|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||June 7, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|True Grit is a beautifully shot film, and the 1080p high-definition presentation on this Blu-Ray gives Roger Deakins’s impressive cinematography its full due. Shot in intentionally drab, desaturated colors with a heavy emphasis on browns, blacks, grays, and other earth tones, True Grit has a nearly monochromatic appearance at times, although the subtlety in the tones and shades suggests real depth in the filmlike image. Detail is first-rate, giving us the sense that we can reach out and touch the rough leather, chipped paint, and dusty surfaces throughout the film. Black levels are strong in the film’s numerous nighttime scenes, and contrast is particularly impressive (note the intensity of the light and dark right next to each other in the courtroom scenes). The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack does not disappoint either. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the dialogue is clear since so much of it is purposefully muffled, mumbled, or sped by you so fast you don’t even realize it, but it is presented with great fidelity, as are the sound effects, which draw us deep into the post-Civil War Old West. The soundtrack of old hymns has a special resonance, as do the many silences.|
|Not surprisingly, Joel and Ethan Coen are completely MIA from the supplements with the exception of a few snippets of behind-the-scenes footage that show them directing the actors. Despite their absence, the half-dozen featurettes (which mostly run in the 5- to 10-minute range) on this Blu-Ray disc do a fine job of showing us the details of the film’s production. Of particular interest are “Outfitting the Old West,” which features costume designer Mary Zophres discussing her approach to late 19th-century apparel; “Colts, Winchesters, & Remingtons,” which features property master Keith Walters talking about the film’s various guns, as well as different props that were used to enhance the characters; and “Re-Creating Fort Smith,” in which the production designer takes us on a tour of how they turned two blocks of Granger, Texas, into Fort Smith, Arkansas, circa 1878. “Behind the Scenes With Mattie Ross” is essentially an extended interview with Hailee Steinfeld, while “The Cast” is a very brief look at the major actors in the film and “The Cinematography of True Grit” is a too-brief interview with Roger Deakins. The supplement I most appreciated was the half-hour documentary “Charles Portis: The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Heard of …,” which interviews numerous writers, editors, admirers, and colleagues of the True Grit author in order to construct a portrait of a much underappreciated American literary talent.|
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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