Posted on 12/22/10 08:17 PM
In the past decade, anyone could count the quality westerns produced in Hollywood, likely, on one hand-having some fingers left over. It is not a hard movie to make; however it is a tricky genre to tackle and do well-difficult to film, a challenge to cast, and tough to develop a well told story. The Coen brothers have spent their career creating homage films in one genre after another-dark satire, film noir, gangster films, crime thrillers, and screwball comedies. No surprise, then, that they move to tackle the western. Dallying in the genre with a modern pastiche-western, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN their newest film TRUE GRIT has similar themes and mood to that Oscar winning masterpiece.
A young 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) looks to avenge the death of her father, shot down by a hired hand and criminal Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin). Having no satisfaction with the law, she sells the belongings of her father to hire a merciless U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down the killer. Meanwhile, she encounters Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who is also tracking Cheney for past crimes. Together, they begin a bloody quest of reprisal.
With actors like Damon, Bridges, and Brolin-not to mention a great turn by Barry Pepper as gang outlaw Ned Pepper you would expect amazing acting. What was most surprising is that young Hailee Steinfeld stars here in her first major motion picture and absolutely carries the narrative in an outstanding performance. Already seeing several award nominations, Steinfeld is certain to see a great career ahead. My hope is she continues to choose wise projects. Bridges is near equal as the surly Cogburn, a boozy, talkative mercenary past his prime. The comparison between Cogburn and NO COUNTRY's sheriff Ed Bell is striking as both are western men of renaissance. In addition, the Coen brothers tie the films together with a closing lament...images of aging men, horses, and snow. This is film that carries a message of law and justice-yet deals in its relationships with gentleness and respect. These characters have a brusque exterior and deal in death. Yet, they talk of their past, their memories, and even each other. The camera captures them in both the tense flashes of action and the mundane moments of their journey. Cogburn is a complex man, as is La Boeuf. Damon has an interesting turn against type as a Texas braggart who tries his hand as a man of violent exploits. Both have a strong sense of self that do battle, both with their words and action. They are two warriors, young and old, testing each other. Young Mattie's own plain talk is strangely intimidating, too, with her steely nerve. Her straightforwardness is as merciless as Cogburn's bullets, or La Beouf's ego.
Filmed in New Mexico and Texas, this film carries a strong sense of nostalgia-not from the classic westerns of the 40s and 50s, but rather the wave of revisionist westerns of the 1970s. Thoughout the film, images of great westerns like JEREMIAH JOHNSON, THE MISSOURI BREAKS, and THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES came to mind. In fact, this film feels much like WALES-a man on a linear journey of revenge-crossing paths with wild characters and dealing in danger.
If you are a fan of the original John Wayne vehicle-know this: this is not a remake. Faithful instead to the book, the film plays with greater humor as well as violence. Only pure nostalgia could think of the 1969 version as superior. Instead, this film is one of the best American westerns in the last twenty years. Though a fairly small pool of films to begin with-like Cogburn's "true grit", this film fights to stake its claim among the greatest of this genre.