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True Grit is yet another very good film by Joel and Ethan Coen, though it might be the least distinctly-Coen movie to date. It's not a remake of the John Wayne movie, but much like No Country for Old Men, it appears to be a very faithful adaptation of a novel, and one that ties even less into their existing style. The trademarks of distinctive, playful dialogue and stark, sudden violence are still there, but putting the story in the 1800s removes it even farther from what we're used to seeing, and in fact I think besides a couple scenes at the end it's their only work not to take place in the 20th century or later. But while I wouldn't have minded seeing a bit more of my favorite filmmakers' flair shine through, the film doesn't need it to succeed. It's already a story that they know how to do, and it's filled with actors that knew what they were going for.
Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, the Wayne character, and he's unsurprisingly excellent as a cantankerous drunk of a US Marshall who'd just as soon shoot a man down as take him in to custody. He's far from the nicest guy, but you still end up loving him because of his unique attitude and competence when it really matters. Though his name is the biggest on the marquee, the protagonist of the story is really Mattie Ross, played almost shockingly well by the teenage Hailee Steinfeld. I believe the first film to adapt this story reduced Mattie's role in the story so they wouldn't have to worry about a young girl carrying the story, but the Coens confronted the problem directly and found the perfect person for the part. The character is at times stubborn, vengeful, and vulnerable, and Steinfeld does everything better than could be expected. Matt Damon plays Texas Ranger La Boeuf (La Beef as he pronounces it), and manages to make the character likable while still conveying his somewhat bumbling nature. Josh Brolin's role as Tom Chaney is surprisingly small, but he pulls it off well, and Barry Pepper is a good mix of scary and laughable as Lucky Ned. The rest of the characters are mostly minor, but well cast, and pretty much everyone seems to nail their old fashioned Southern accents.
So the story is about Mattie hiring Cogburn to track down Chaney, who killed her father and is also being tracked by La Boeuf for crimes in Texas. The three all butt heads and part ways at various points, but generally stay on Chaney's trail while having various unusual encounters in unsettled territory. Some of what they run across is quite grim, while other things are played more for laughs, with the general tone being fairly dark but not without a lining of lightheartedness. Eventually things start to get more violent as they get closer to their goal, and I was a bit surprised by the bloodiness and savagery of some of what happened considering the PG-13 rating. There wasn't anything in particular that was graphic enough on its own to bump it up, but the amount and unpredictable nature of it was notable. I enjoyed the movie a lot, but in what have might have been an artifact of the sometimes unusual structure of a novel, the pace of the plot seemed a bit off. A lot of time is spent establishing the characters before they really set off, and the climax and end of the story seemed to sneak up unexpectedly. We don't really get to know any of the bad guys before they're killed, and while that can work when done right, it felt sort of strange when the whole story was based around pursuing a man who only gets a few minutes on screen before the end. There's something to the antagonist being just another guy that gets built up when he evades capture for a long time, but it made for a less than perfectly told story in my mind. I liked pretty much every individual scene, they just didn't all come together quite as well as the Coen brothers usually manage.
As I mentioned though, it was still a good film, and the production quality certainly didn't hurt. The locations they used for the story were perfect, and the whole thing was gorgeous from beginning to end. Great cinematography, framing, and lighting combined with the right natural beauty make for a movie that's just great to look at the whole time, and the sets they built felt right too. The score was also fantastic, a lot of it was based on old hymns which disqualified the film for the Oscar, but it helped set the right mood in every scene, especially when bad things were happening. If everyone could just adapt a story and put it on screen as well as the Coens do pretty much every time, then the film world would be a much better place. Not my favorite movie of the year, but it certainly has a spot pretty high on my list.