By: Addison Wylie
Recently, films belonging in the Western genre aren’t being well received. It could be because Western films are few and far between. It feels as if filmmakers aren’t tackling the category as often as they could. However, it also takes a keen, creative director to make a Western into something inspiring and interesting that adds its own spin and because of that, the genre may seem intimidating. With No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers showed hints of that love they have for Western films. After the misfire that was A Serious Man, Ethan and Joel Coen are back to form with True Grit; a reminder as to what makes a Western so special accompanied by effective performances and slick direction.
After the tragic death of her father, Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld, is filled with angry emotions and a revenge filled agenda. She swears that she will find the black-hearted felon who murdered her beloved father. The murderer is none other than Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin. She realizes that in order to meet her goals, she is going to need some help. It’s then where she is aquatinted with Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, played with relentless force by Jeff Bridges. The two converse and Rooster promises to find the murderous coward. The kicker is he does not want Mattie going along for the dangerous ride with him. Meanwhile, Mattie also meets up with a ranger who goes by the name LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon. LaBoeuf, who would also like to capture Chaney for alternate reasons, orders Mattie to return to the safety of her home and insists that she should stay away from tracking down Chaney. Passionate and uncontrollable, Mattie finds Cogburn and LaBoeuf and convinces them to bring her along for the trek. The two determined men are hesitant but agree to her company as they track down the depraved offender. The film is also a remake of the original 1969 True Grit featuring John Wayne.
The performances are dynamite. Bridges is able to take the role of Cogburn and embody himself in the character. There are moments where the audience could make comparisons between Rooster and with Bridges’ Dude character from the Coen’s Big Lebowski but it never feels like an exact copy of that laid back, stoned burnout. Bridges takes those tired, drunken, mannerisms and emotions and applies them to a much more old fashioned persona. The development Bridges establishes with these physical mannerisms as well as his vocal characteristics works wonders and adds to the believability of this traditional, odd ball bounty hunter. Damon is able to take the limited screen time he has and is able to materialize a strong counterpart to Bridges’ Cogburn and the two play off one another beautifully; especially during a scene where Cogburn and LaBoeuf are challenging each other to shooting moving targets. A performance that radiates is Steinfeld’s portrayal of Mattie Ross. This charming young woman shows that she has a very strong future as an actress by delivering a layered performance filled with outrage and determination. However, she is never yelling or screaming. In scenes where Ross is negotiating with older gentlemen, Steinfeld delivers lines with confidence and sharp wit. As she delivers these lines, she is taking extremely short breaks to breath which adds to the effect of how determined she is to make her point. Not only is Steinfeld able to verbally make an audience believe in her character, but the subtle mannerisms she depicts adds more depth to her emotions. In a sea of award worthy performances, Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross is an absolute winner.
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Ethan and Joel Coen not only direct their actors well, but they are able to nail the look and tone of their film. Under the direction of the brothers, Carter Burwell, who has composed scores for a fair number of Coen flicks, is able to create music that feels like its been extracted from a Western belonging in the early days of the Spaghetti Western. The music never feels too dark during establishing shots of the town in order to show how quant the community is but Burwell knows when it should take on a more serious tone; such as during shoot-out scenes. Also, the Coens are able to effectively illustrate to cinematographer Roger Deakins as to how the film should look. By utilizing excellent lighting and a variety of dolly and crane shots, Deakins is able to demonstrate how calming it is to ride on horseback across the country plains but he also allows tension to rise with the use of close ups during scenes of peril.
I adore the Coens but if we look past the excellent and award winning No Country for Old Men, the directorial duo has been fumbling with the task of making a memorable, post 2000 feature (before No Country, the last great Coen Brother feature was O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000). I wasn’t feeling any passion behind their recent work. With their affection for the genre as well as their ability to blend humor in the oddest of situations, the Coens have succeeded in making a significant motion picture that is not only a strong entry into the Western genre but also one of the best films of 2010.