Jeff Bridges is the dude. We’ve all seen Big Lebowski (if you haven’t, that’s a life fail) and realize how awesome the man is. However, when I really thought about it, I haven’t actually seen that many movies with him in it. He was good in uh….Seabiscuit! And K-Pax! When he won his Oscar for Crazy Heart last year (a film I haven’t seen) I just liked to think in my own head that he was winning for Lebowski. So in my head he was always the dude. Until I saw True Grit. A western by the ever nutso Coen Brothers, True Grit is based on a book by Charles Portis, and has also already been a movie, 1969’s film of the same name starring none other than John Wayne. I’ve never read the book and I’ve never see the older film, so I went with no idea how the plot would unfold or preconceived notions of the characters. The plot, despite what the trailer may lead you to believe, is not an insane story of the normal Coen Brothers ilk. It’s a traditional Western that stands out from the pack due too incredible performances from its three leads. Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, and 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld are in almost every scene in the movie, many times together and it is the total abandon with which they dive into their roles that make True Grit compelling.
Despite the star power of her two compatriots, it’s actually Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross who is the main character and impetus for the story. Ross is a remarkably intelligent girl barely into her teens on a mission. An outlaw named Tom Chaney murdered her father (no spoiler, this is the opening scene of the movie, literally) and fled, and Mattie is going to do absolutely whatever it takes to bring Chaney to justice. Her method of doing this involves enlisting a man she’s told has “true grit” (I GET IT), namely a U.S Marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Bridges). And by “enlisting” I mean she basically turns him into a mercenary by offering him $50 if Chaney is brought to justice. Hey, it was the wild west! 50 bucks could buy you tons of stuff! I remember Oregon Trail. That’s like 34 oxen. Despite his objections, Ross insists on accompanying Cogburn into the wilds to find Chaney. They end up being joined by another man tracking Tom Chaney, Matt Damon as Texas Ranger La Boeuf. Turns out Chaney committed some crimes in Texas as well. So it’s this unlikely trio that ends up venturing out to find Chaney.
I said in my review of The Town that Matt Damon is clearly the superior actor to Ben Affleck and this is very apparent in True Grit. Affleck had the lead role there and was outshined by supporting characters Jeremy Renner and Jon Hamm. Here, Damon’s is the least meaty role of the three principles, but manages to be not only memorable but scene stealing at points. He plays Le Boeuf as a man almost absurdly proud of his Texas Ranger title. Moments like Cogburn giving Le Boeuf shit because of his affinity for Texas bring out some of the Coen Brothers humor. While this is a very serious film, it is NOT as serious as No Country for Old Men. We know Damon is funny from Ocean’s 11 and Dogma, and he shows that here in a much more subtle way while also being able to flex his dramatic skills. A scene involving him, Ross, Cogburn, guns, and some cornbread is truly epic.
Bridges had a tall task. Playing any role formerly inhabited by John Wayne brings with it some weight. As I said, without having seen the original, I can’t imagine Wayne put on a better acting performance than this. The highest praise I can give is that I totally forgot I was watching Jeff Bridges. Rooster is an abrasive man with a heavy accent, to the point where I almost couldn’t understand him sometimes. Supposedly some that have seen the film have that problem fo realz and literally can’t understand him, but I don’t find that to be the case. How Bridges plays Cogburn, namely as a slightly off the rails drunken cowboy who shoots first, asks questions later, and then celebrates pretty much anything but knocking back a few, is fun to watch. Again, much like Damon, I was stunned at how FUNNY he and the movie as a whole was. That being said, his dramatic work is just as good if not better. A scene in a cabin (which the trailer kind of makes famous, with the “I can do nothing for ya, son” line) is probably my favorite in the movie. It shows off Cogburns’s wit and cunning, as he’s clearly crazy, but like a fox. But don’t you kind of have to be crazy to be an aging U.S. Marshal striking out into the wilds with a 14-year-old girl and a dude from Texas to track an outlaw? Huge credit goes to Bridges for making that somewhat absurd situation seem plausible, all while making us forget whose behind the make up and costume. I always said that the best part of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in Dark Knight is that if you watched that film and didn’t know who was playing the Joker, you probably couldn’t guess Heath Ledger. Bridges doesn’t quite reach that level here, but only because the make up doesn’t do enough to mask him. He IS Rooster Cogburn for the running time of the film.
We knew Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon could act. The biggest potential stumbling block for this film is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. This 14-year-old has to share the screen with Bridges and Damon and not only not be overshadowed by them, but come off as more intelligent, resourceful, and believable. She accomplishes all of those things and then some. Normally, for me at least, when somebody that young plays a role something just seems off. Kids can usually say the lines and get the movements, but the voice just seems hollow and I can see them memorizing the script and just reciting it at the proper time. Steinfeld does none of that. Much like Damon and Bridges, and in some cases even more so, I BELIEVED her character. I never caught one iota of her sounding fake or stilted. Whether she was outwitting business men when settling her fathers affairs or calming down Cogburn and La Boeuf after a disagreement, she was in control. She narrates the story and it’s her passion for bringing her fathers killer to justice that unites our trio. I’m not quite ready to give her the Elrood most awesome child actor award that Chloe Moretz currently holds for Let Me In, but it’s damn close.
Quick shout out to the only two other characters of note in the entire film. Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin, has very little screen time given he’s really the main bad guy. It’s a very small role that Brolin probably only took due to his affinity for the Coen Brothers post No Country for Old Men, but he does very well. Barry Pepper plays “Lucky” Ned Pepper, a gang leader that gets involved in a way I won’t give away, but he is his normally solid self. Yes, a Pepper plays Pepper. Go figure. Barry Pepper is one of those guys I’ve always liked but I rarely see in anything, which is a shame. If you haven’t seen 25th hour, do it, it’s his best work.
True Grit deserves high praise. The story is captivating from the outset and never once did my interest wane. I can’t even say which acting performance I enjoyed the most. But Steinfeld was the most impressive. She should have been blown off the screen by two of the better actors in recent memory. Instead, she’s the one who threatens to steal the show. The rumor mill says the producers of True Grit submitted Steinfeld for a best supporting actress nomination. That’s bullshit. She is the leading actress of this film. They probably did it because she has no chance against Natalie Portman in Black Swan, but know it was politics and not facts. She has true grit.
Filed under: Movies | Tagged: Barry Peper, Black Swan, Charles Portis, Coen Brothers, cornbread, Dark Knight, Dogma, Elrood, Faceplant, Hailee Steinfeld, Heath Ledger, Jeff Bridges, John Wayne, Joker, Josh Brolin, K-Pax, Matt Damon, Mattie Ross, Natalie Portman, No Country for Old Men, nominations, Oceans 11, Oregon Trail, Oscar, Oxen, Rooster Cogburn, Seabiscuit, True Grit |