Thursday, July 7, 2011

Film Review: True Grit (2010)

True Grit

Released: 2010

Directed by: Ethan and Joel Coen

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld

For book review and synopsis go here

I left my book review of this work pretty short because I knew there was quite a bit I wanted to discuss about the film and I didn't want the content to overlap too much between them. I suppose to start I should say that the film is very faithful to the book, there are many, many lines taken directly from the book's dialogue and they managed to capture the characters that were so alive and brash in the book brilliantly. I read in an interview with Jeff Bridges that the Coen brothers had told him not to watch the John Wayne film but to read the book and that would give him all he needed to know about his character. Hearing something like that is usually a good sign. I've read interviews when the actor hasn't read the book because the director doesn't want him to get confused and start acting like the character from the book...sorry isn't that the point of adapting from a book?! There was only one incident that deviated from the book which I'll touch on in a little bit (it's a bit spoiler-ish so I don't want to scare people off from reading this review!) but first I want to discuss the actors and their characters in a bit of detail.

In my book review I raved a little about the protagonist, 14-year-old Mattie and now it is time to rave about the actress who took on the role, Hailee Steinfeld. To put it simply, she was amazing. Mattie is a fairly recognisable character and I think I was probably expecting her character to be a bit of a failure (although I'd already heard people rave over Steinfeld's performance) since more often than not child actors have trouble portraying really big or complex characters. I was wrong in that presumption, Steinfeld not only looked the part, this fantastic mix of the necessary femininity of the time and no-nonsense tomboy-ish-ness, but completely embodied all the components that made Mattie such an interesting and engaging character. I can only imagine how daunting working with such accomplished actors and directors would have felt for the young girl, but I'd love to imagine that she's just as hard, unassuming and brash as the girl she portrays and that the men fell down at her verbal slings just like they do in the film.

Steinfeld was supported by an incredible cast. Josh Brolin (as the villain Chaney) was phenomenal as per usual, as Jeff Bridges did such an amazing job as the drunken hard-ass Rooster Cogburn (though it was hard to understand his muttered accent at times) but who I really wanted to talk about was Matt Damon and his character in the film, LaBeouf. It's only recently that I've been able to tear Damon away from the "MATT. DAMON" Team America depiction. I'd enjoyed him in previous roles but I think it was the combination of the Team America rip and the flux of action and crappy films he did for awhile that sort of clouded him as an actor for me. Because of this little prejudice of mine I'm always surprised when I see him in a film and like him. This was one of those films. He melted into his character superbly and if I hadn't known he was in the film I possibly would have had trouble recognising him from time to time.

His character was a lot of fun. A Texas Ranger named LaBeouf runs into Mattie at Fort Smith as she prepares to take off after Chaney. As fate would have it LaBeouf has been on Chaney's tail for several years now (he's a fast and slimy devil), hunting him down so he can take him back to Texas to hang for the murder of a senator and his dog. Though they're playing for the same side Mattie wants Chaney to hang for her father's death and not some senator she doesn't know. For her it's personal, for LaBeouf it's financial. He'll rake in a bucket load if he returns Chaney to Texas dead, and even more if he manages to take the man in alive.

So alongside Chaney, LaBeouf becomes a bit of an enemy of Matties, especially when he tries to negate the arrangement she'd made with Rooster Cogburn and set up a new one with the two men working together to share the spoils. He's equal measures hard-ass, proper, pompous, eccentric (ish) and insulting (to everyone) and Matt Damon plays the part to perfection. He had the hoitey-toitey "I'm a Texas Ranger and you're a little girl child and lowly Marshall" air down pat, and he mixed it with this sensational dry sense of humour and...I want to say self-consciousness, but I'm not sure if that was right. His verbal sparring with Mattie is hilarious and some of the high points of the film for me. One of my favourite little spars takes place when they've first met and Mattie revealed she had hired a Marshall to head into the Indian Territory with him to catch Chaney. After a slick bit of banter between the two of them (with him on the losing side) he concludes with;

"Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt,"
This line is in the book as well and got a laugh from me there as well, but it was the combination of the bizarreness of a Texas Ranger acknowledging wanting to kiss a 14 year old (that knowledge seemed to come out of thin air), the hilarity of the insults he dishes out and his switch from prospective lover to father-figure with the way that Matt Damon played out that scene that had me almost in hysterics. It also does a good job of summing up their relationship in the film and the book for me.

I suppose this leads fairly neatly into the one deviation that the film took from the book. In the book and the film LaBeouf and Rooster take off together in search of Chaney and attempt to leave Mattie behind. She catches up and they let her come along (though in the book they keep trying to lose her and she has to ride hard to keep up) and everything goes swimmingly (though rather awkwardly) until an argument between them all ends with LaBeouf holding Mattie over his knee and spanking her for her insolence. In both the film and the book Rooster steps in and stops Le  Beouf from disciplining the girl, but what comes next is where they deviate (WARNING- SPOILERS A-COMING). In the book they calm down and continue on together and attempt to track down Chaney. In the film though, this is where LaBeouf takes his leave from the other two and a rivalry is set up over who will get to Chaney first. They do eventually end back up riding together, but not until they (Rooster and Mattie) come across two men in a little shanty house and plan an ambush on Chaney and the men he's riding with which results in LaBeouf getting a shot to the shoulder.

I can understand why they added the separation of the group in the film. it added suspense and drove the film forward and I think it actually aided in fleshing out the characters a bit more (since films never get that internal monologue or teeny details or side plots that books are filled with) so I'm definitely not criticising the move. I just thought it was interesting to note, and if anyone else has seen the film and read the book I'd love to hear in the comments what you thought of the split. I think what was important about the split not being an issue for me was that it didn't change the general structure of the book at all. After they split everything proceeded as normal except that LaBeouf's voice was absent until the ambush, and even then his role, though different, was essentially the same. In both the book and the film it was because of him the group of outlaws were able to get away, and whether it was an errant shot on his part (the book) or him getting in the way and getting shot (film) the direction it moved the story into was the same.

Overall though this is one of those wonderful times that a film lives up to the greatness of the novel and doesn't make any severe modifications to the content. I'd recommend this film to anyone, seriously, anyone who watches films. It was a perfect addition into the Coens Brother canon of work (seriously, I think Portis wrote this after visiting the future via TARDIS or DeLorean and meeting them) the acting was sensational, the storyline interesting, the dialogue sharp and witty and it was visually stunning. A solid film that deserves multiple viewings.

My Rating: 4.5/5


  1. I also really enjoyed this film. I haven't read the book, but do remember enjoying the original film version with John Wayne in Jeff Bridges Rooster role. I loved the original too. In fact True Grit is the only John Wayne film I have really enjoyed, and I have seen a few in my time. I totally agree Matt Damon is wonderful and makes LaBoeuf fun, but also subtle at the same time. Great review!

  2. Thanks Mel! I'm hoping to get a chance to watch the John Wayne version sometime soon. I've heard good things about it.



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