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'True Grit' rides again

December 27, 2010|BY BOB GARVER | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • Hailee Steinfeld , left, and Jeff Bridges are shown in a scene from, "True Grit."
Paramount Pictures

"True Grit" is a meeting of many powerful forces.

Jeff Bridges is the most recent winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen won the Academy Award for Best Director three years ago.

The film is a remake of a 1969 Western that won John Wayne an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Matt Damon is in the film, and he has an Oscar for writing and two acting nominations.

With all these acclaimed elements in place, it is no surprise that the film will no doubt go down as a critical darling. And with all the acclaimed elements leading to high expectations, it is no surprise that the film is just a bit disappointing.  

By now, it is little secret that the real star of the film isn't grizzled bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), but rather his determined f14-year-old client Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld).  

Mattie is looking to avenge the death of her father at the hands of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She is stubborn and knowledgeable, and she is one to get what she wants. There are a number of scenes early in the film where Mattie displays her skills at fast-talking haggling and firm promises of legal action.  

Steinfeld is terrific in these scenes, but I had an issue with legal threats as a way of moving the story along. The Wild West world of the film is one where people solve their problems with violence and don't stick around to worry about consequences. It seems out of place for the characters to let legal obligations affect their actions.  

Mattie doesn't trust Cogburn, so she insists on accompanying him on his mission to find Chaney.  They team up with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Damon), who has an agenda of his own.  Somehow they manage to make good progress with one being 14, one being injured and one being old, drunk and out of shape. There are many scenes where the team's loyalty is tested and one member wants to kick another out of the group or strike out on their own. The second act of the film essentially depends on the chemistry among the three leads, which all three actors have in spades.  

There are occasional shootouts as the story goes along, and of course there is a climactic battle when we finally meet Chaney toward the end. I liked the action scenes in the film because they kept me guessing.

While conventional logic tells me that the main characters need to live to see another fight (and Maddie has to make it to the end, since she's narrating the story as an adult), there was legitimate suspense as to how the characters were going to get out of various situations. I wish the scenes had been longer so the characters could keep their cat and mouse games going, but I can't fault them for wanting to take care of business as quickly as possible.  

The Achilles' heel of the film is its ending, an element that has brought down many a Coen brothers film in the past. Rushing, loose ends and crucial action taking place offscreen all cause the film to end on a sour note. It isn't so much that the film loses steam, because this isn't a film that simply runs out of good ideas.  

The problem is that Maddie needs to be taken away from the action for a while, and we end up feeling just as removed as she is. Still, the closing narration could give us better details. Like "No Country for Old Men," the film ends on a cryptic line and the credits roll before anyone even realizes that the scene has ended.  

Still, "True Grit" is probably the best thing opening at your theater this holiday season, and it is certainly a good decision to acquaint yourself with it before it rakes in a number of Oscar nominations.  

Three stars out of five.  

"True Grit" is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of Western violence including disturbing images.  Its runtime is 110 minutes.

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