Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"True Grit" is Truly Impressive

At first glance, "True Grit" could be categorized simply as a Western, and given its first cinematic incarnation as the John Wayne vehicle that won The Duke his Oscar, that would make sense. But in the hands of the Coen Brothers the classic story blossoms into a soot-black comedy woven with King James Bible-brand dialogue and some of the best performances of the year.

Adapted from Charles Portis' 1968 novel, the film stars beguiling newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a no-nonsense 14-year-old who recruits U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father for a few horses and two California gold pieces, so she can exact avenge. As they set off into barren "Indian Territory," freshly dusted with snow, they're joined by La Beouf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who's spent months on Chaney's trail.

Shot by Roger Deakins (marking his eleventh time as the Coen Brothers' cinematographer) in dusty sepia tones that give way to inky nights spent by the flickering glow of a campfire pockmarked by the occasional muzzle flash, the film looks and smells like a worn leather saddlebag—as does Bridges.

Sporting an eye patch, gin blossom nose and wheezing tobacco-charred voice, Bridges' whiskey-guzzling, sharp-shooting Cogburn is an acting high wire act. Somehow both grounded and grandiose, it's a turn so impressive, it makes you wonder if he could pull a Tom Hanks and win the Best Actor Oscar two years in a row. (Whatdayathink about that, Colin Firth?)

With brief, transfixing appearances by Brolin and the always impressive but hugely underrated Barry Pepper, the other name we expect to hear on the Academy's roll call this year (right after Christian Bale's for "The Fighter") is Damon's, who provides a great deal of the film's unexpected comedy and turns in his best work in recent memory.

The fact that Steinfeld, whose only notable credit before "Grit" was a TV movie called "Summer Camp," goes toe-to-toe with Bridges, Brolin and Damon, driving the story forward with her portrayal of a stoic, stalwart young girl hellbent on vengeance, is proof of an impressive career to come.

Lacking any sentimentality, but somehow full of heart and tenderness, unpredictably funny yet chillingly somber, "True Grit" is a genre-defying, impeccably crafted film that only the Coen Brothers could make.
Watching Bridges and Damon on the trail, I kept flashing back to my Glamping extravaganza with Brian earlier this year, so I figured, why not resurrect that good ol' Cowboy Caviar Soup?
For the recipe, click here...

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