Retribution on display in Oscar contender ‘Grit’

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By Tressa Eckerman, Senior Staff Writer

The first thing that needs to be pointed out about the Coen brothers’ newest movie “True Grit,” is that it isn’t a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film. Instead, it is a faithful reconstruction of the 1968 book by Charles Portis.

It’s likely that you’re going to hear its name called out more than once at this year’s Oscars. The Oscars love the Coen brothers, but really, who doesn’t? And “True Grit” is one of their crowning achievements in a career full of exceptional work.

Jeff Bridges takes on Wayne’s old role of the crass, hard-drinking Rooster Cogburn hired by 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who killed her father. They are joined by Texas Ranger laboeuf (Matt Damon) as they search for the gang led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) who Chaney has joined up with.

The performances here are the standout of the entire movie. The Coen’s know how to draw brilliant performances out of their actors. Maybe it’s just the fact that the lines they write are so fun for actors to say.

It’s almost impossible to compare this film in any way to the original but Bridges, well let’s just say his performance as Cogburn is classic. It’s a bold statement, but Bridges’ performance beats out the original. “How many men, in your four years as US Marshall, how many men have you shot?” A cross examining lawyer ask Cogburn early in the movie.

“Shot? Or killed?” Cogburn counters.

The gravelly voice, crude jokes and drinking all mask a man who grows to care for the young girl who has hired him. It’s his relationship with the young Mattie that’s really something special. At one point when Mattie corners Cogburn and attempts to hire him, Cogburn looks genuinely intimidated by Mattie.

Their back-and-forth becomes a feature of the movie. When they come across a hanged man in a tree Cogburn asks Mattie if it’s Cheney. “I surely can’t tell by looking at the soles of his feet” she says, giving him a sideways glance before climbing the tree to cut the body down. Steinfeld is an actress who will be around for a long time. She more than holds her own beside Bridges, Damon, Brolin and Pepper.

Matt Damon provides the comic relief in the movie, and he does it well. He plays laboeuf, a smarmy Texas Ranger trying way too hard to be a lot smoother than he actually is. Josh Brolin is appropriately creepy in the rather small role that he carries.

Regarding Barry Pepper, there‘s almost no words to describe him. He’s one of those actors whom i’ve never understood why he wasn’t more famous. He’s been in so many movies and when he appears in a movie, even if it’s just for a few fleeting moments, he makes the movie just that much better. He’s only in “True Grit” for about 15 minutes but what time he does have he uses so well.

Not long after “True Grit” came out, Entertainment Weekly did an article about how bizarre it was to see Pepper and Damon in a movie like “True Grit” playing characters like the one’s they play, when the last movie they shared was “Saving Private Ryan” almost 15 years ago. If I could think of one complaint about “True Grit” (and trust me that isn’t easy) it would be that there wasn’t enough Barry Pepper.

“True Grit” is a violent movie. But like every other Coen brothers movie there is something about the way those brutally violent scenes are shot. The instances of violence come out of nowhere and are often found in ordinarily quiet moments but that’s what makes it so good. They are over almost as soon as they have begun.

There are a lot of great things about this movie, though I can see why people might take issue with it. It isn’t as heavy on the action as some of the trailers may have led viewers to believe but for what it is, a new take on an old genre, a character study and an actor’s movie, there’s a lot to love here. I’ve seen the original and though I never said it before about a remake, this is by far the superior film.

“There is nothing free in this world… except the grace of God,” a 40-year old Mattie says in a voice-over early in the film. And this movie about retribution and learnt lessons is going to last a lot longer than the Oscar nominations that it will surely receive.

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