Monday, January 10, 2011

True Grit

Before I move forward with my views, opinions, or review of the new hit Western, True Grit, I have to make a confession. Westerns are one of my favorite genres. Honestly, I love almost every Western I have ever seen. So my thoughts on True Grit may be biased.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, Westerns ruled Hollywood. You could find a Western playing at your local theater any given week. Westerns fell out of fashion by the 1970s as contemporary audiences fell in love with special effects and action adventure movies. We saw a brief renaissance in the early 1990s starting with Kevin Costner’s, Dances with Wolves followed by Clint Eastwood’s, Unforgiven. Amazingly, both movies won an Oscar for Best Picture.

For those who love the Western genre, the 1990s brought a quick succession of one Western after another, including Geronimo, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Wild, Wild West, Maverick, and The Quick and the Dead. But in recent years, Hollywood once again turned its back on big-budget Westerns.

Thanks to the Coen Brothers, we are fortunate to see the Western once again grace the big screen. So let me get right to it. True Grit is the “Best Picture” of the year, period. And I would make that statement even if Westerns were not my favorite genre. The question that most people ask is how is this movie compared to the original John Wayne film from 1969, and is it better? Although it is the same movie and follows basically the same plot points, it is totally different in its style and tone.

The Coen Brothers decided not to base their film on the original 1969 movie. Their version of True Grit reflects the original vision of the 1968 novel published by Charles Portis. This vision plays out beautifully in the opening graphic of the film which reads, “The wicked run away when there is no one chasing them”, from Proverbs 28:1. Right from the beginning, we know that True Grit will be a film that’s more about a spiritual journey than just a film about revenge and retaliation. The film eventually enters into a discussion about justice as it relates to revenge. The story is told from the viewpoint of Mattie Ross vs. Rooster Cogburn, which is a major difference from the original film. What also is different from the original film is that it is a much more personal story.

The new True Grit starts with the murder of Mattie Ross’s father in Arkansas. Hailee Steinfeld plays the 14 year old, high spirited, headstrong daughter who is determined to seek justice for her father’s death at the hand of the notorious Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin. Chaney has fled into the Indian territory. Ross is in hot pursuit looking for someone with “true grit” who can help her bring Chaney back to Arkansas to stand trial. She finds an unwilling ally in the likes of U.S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, portrayed by Jeff Bridges. Cogburn has a reputation for getting his man at any means, which usually means dead. Joining in the quest is Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon. Along the way they will deal with an assortment of characters and outlaws. Mattie drives a hard bargain as she deals with the competing interests of Cogburn and LaBoeuf.

So what makes True Grit an outstanding movie? Is it the directing, acting, casting, cinematography, art direction, script or other factors? I don’t care what film critics will tell you. There’s no way to define outstanding filmmaking. In some ways, it’s like the classic definition of pornography, “You know it when you see it”. All of the elements come together in True Grit and create something that defines art. The individual elements somehow equal more than its total sum. And that doesn’t happen very often in a movie.

True Grit doesn’t work without an incredible career-defining performance by Hailee Steinfeld. She was only 13 years old when the film was shot. Not only does she deserve a nomination for an Oscar, but she gets my vote for Best Actress. The Coen Brothers auditioned over 15,000 girls for the lead. They realized they didn’t have a picture without the right Mattie Ross.

The final narration from Mattie Ross brings a satisfying conclusion to the film’s journey. “You pay for everything in this world. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” Mattie’s moral compass is determined to bring order to grace, mercy, justice, forgiveness and, ultimately, death itself.

Several people had raised eyebrows when it was announced that the Coen Brothers (Fargo and No Country For Old Men) were going to produce a Western. Known for their eccentric and quirky approach to filmmaking, could they play it straight? Thankfully, they found a way to incorporate their creativity and their unique vision while at the same time paying homage to the Western genre.

It took the combined efforts of the Coen Brothers and the star power of Jeff Bridges, who recently won Best Actor for Crazy Heart, to remake one of the most popular westerns of all time a possibility. I can only hope that more directors will be willing to journey down this trail and embrace the Western genre. There are plenty of new stories to be told, and Westerns make a great backdrop and canvas to tell them in a uniquely American way. I believe Westerns are equivalent to Shakespeare’s great theater. So do yourself a favor, see True Grit while it is still playing on the big screen. It may be a long time before another Western comes along.

No comments:

Post a Comment