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Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld

"True Grit" | a film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento


Oh, that old Jeff Bridges. What won't he try next? The dude can do anything*... even filling Duke Wayne's boots in "True Grit," also the name of another Western that starred Mr. Wayne and Kim Darby, back in '69. Both "True Grits," then and now, are taken from the writings of Arkansas native Charles Portis, who sounds a satirical note in his work. That would seem right up the Coen Brothers' alley: Joel and Ethan directed and wrote the script for this "Grit" II. (The Coens, of course, are responsible for the stellar, "No Country for Old Men," and isn't Cormac McCarthy proud?)

Matt Damon

Matt Damon

The new "True Grit," besides having Bridges in the cast as the fictional U.S. Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn, boasts another seemingly never-out-of-work film actor of the day: Matt Damon. He does the Glen Campbell character, LaBoeuf, from "True Grit" number one. LaBoeuf is the proud and kind of stuffy Texas Ranger up from Waco to nab Tom Chaney for gunning down a Texas State Senator and his dawg.

"True Grit" II has a fresh face for the Mattie Ross role Darby did. Hailee Steinfeld is plumb good as the 14-year-old, but hardnosed, young lady who puts the what-for into Rooster's feathers to get his butt out to chasing after her father's killer. And who would be better as that killer, Tom Chaney, than Josh Brolin? Josh is quite the expert at playing smarmy men, and seems about as busy, these days, as Bridges and Damon.

Interestingly though, the cast for the new "Grit" isn't as impressive as the old "Grit." Other than Wayne (himself), Darby and Delight, Arkansas' very own Campbell, guess who else showed up for that one? Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Strother "What We Have Here Is A Failure to Communicate" Martin of "Cool Hand Luke" fame. (Which you'll remember also had Lee Woodward's bro, Morgan, as the hard ass, silent sheriff with the fancy sunglasses who's got all the damned gall to shoot Paul Newman, as Luke, dead. I'll never forgive Morgan for doin' that.)

But whoa, pilgrim, I digress. This is about "True Grit" (2010), which, I hear tell, clings more closely to the original text put out by Portis. It lays out just about all the action in extreme western Arkansas around Ft. Smith, where the Hangin' Judge, Issac Parker, held forth for many a year stringing up bad men who'd been acting up all the way from St. Louis across Arkansas, and on across the Arkansas River into Indian Territory, soon to be known in 1907 as... uh... Oklahoma.

Another interesting aside here, if you don't mind: Judge Parker, despite his notoriety for giving lynching parties, didn't believe, personally, in the death penalty. But Judge Parker did follow the law. The problem was that Parker's jurisdiction was a hellava big one, with a mighty number of ne'er-do-wells running loose... but, to continue... (sorry)...

Mattie and her daddy had come up to Ft. Smith from Yell County, which is about equidistance from Little Rock and Ft. Smith. Tom Chaney (He who flees) shoots Mr. Ross in Ft. Smith, and Mattie, in her determined, most hardscrabble way, noses 'round town till she finds Rooster telling fibs in Judge Parker's court about killing, in the line of duty, too many brothers of the same family. An' sure enough, Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn is Mattie's man to bring in Chaney for a little "party" he'd, most likely, be gettin' invited to by Judge Parker.

That's pretty much the historical backdrop for the narrative on this fictitious event that glorifies the time of the late 19th century, just a stone's throw from Tulsey Town, itself. The perfect period to find where America came from, or... is still trying to get-on-up-the-road from... or from which it will never get away: however you want to look at it.

No matter time or place, the Coen brothers usually have their own subtext in motion to allow for droll or, even, gallows humor in whatever film they make. It's there, in the background, in their "True Grit," too, but, Portis' original story comes out of a keen appreciation for the satirical, as well.

I think that's what it is that numbed-down the Coen guys' razor-sharp, but subtle sense of what's really, deep-down, chuckle-evoking in their "Grit" re-do, which they, btw, don't consider a re-do, but more bookish, a la Portis---as they did with McCarthy and his novel about old men not having a place... in a too-moderned-up country.

Although I really like Jeff and Matt and lovely Hailee in this sassy and semi-sweet film of revenge and redemption, the rather broad manner in which the roles are done seems redundant in some kind of screwy way... at least for me. Bridges, whom I've always had the greatest appreciation for as an actor and for his script selection, appears a mite overboard doing the Rooster. Maybe a couple of clicks back would've done it for me.

The very nature of Rooster's character needs not a lot of extra acting to get the message across that he's a pretty damned stubborn, hard-drinking, sonofabitch who keeps buried in that barrel chest of his a heart bigger than all Get-Out. And LaBoeuf comes off as almost too tight-assed about being a Texas Ranger, but I did love the words the Coens put in Damon's mouth when LaBoeuf uses the word "remonstrate" in lieu of saying "argue" or another word of like meaning. It sounds so late 19th century to me. What's more, pretty, little Mattie frequently employs the word, "pursue" instead of "chase" or "go after" or "hunt down."

Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin

They are scenes that go on longer than needed, usually with Mr. Bridges vamping and doing his Rooster thing in spades for another unneeded 45 seconds to a minute of running time.

"I've already laughed about that, Jeff and Joel and Ethan. And, it's damned good, but let's get on with it."

It was also disappointing for me that Josh Brolin's appearance as Chaney is nigh onto that of a cameo. And it could be even he acts a little too goofy in the part. "Josh, it's good---but maybe just a click back, you aren't George Clooney in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"

The richness of Portis' people in this story already conveys a large load for the viewer or reader. The actors, in overdrive, freight "True Grit" more than necessary. But that's not the case for Ms. Steinfeld's Mattie. What an utter joy to perceive her teenaged authoritarian manner, intelligence and sense of reality of the moments in which she's living and competing with (save LaBoeuf) mostly ornery, old geezers. "Can the feminist movement be much further up the trail toward Muskogee(?)" is what I kept asking myself watching "True Grit."

(* I know: Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar last year in "Crazy Heart" and he deserved it, but his performance in "Fearless" is the best I've seen him, and I even remember Jeff, all wet behind the ears, in a good movie called "Bad Company" from 1972, when he was prepping for this year's Rooster role. Seems like, as Marshal Cogburn would say, "Things have panned out pretty well for Jeff Bridges." And wouldn't've Mike Nelson been proud, to know that?)

"True Grit" official site.

Opens wide Dec. 22.

See Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2010, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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