Saturday, January 15, 2011
Now this is a fun movie. It's the kind of movie that only filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen could do.
Ultimately, this is a movie about virtue. Virtue in the moral sense. Virtue also in the original sense — efficacy, courage, guts, true grit — virtu.
The Brothers Coen have always had a heart for the tough-minded cynicism of film noir — that and screwball comedy, along with their signature weird touches. This comes across as nihilism to some, but that's a misreading. Noir explores the war of good and evil. It's inherently moral, but it concentrates on what happens to folks who listen to the advice of the devil on their shoulder.
The Coens have looked unflinchingly at evil for years. There's not an ounce of sentimentality in them. They've earned the right to do a real Western that's not revisionist in any way. (The flick is a faithful treatment of Charles Portis' original novel that forgets the John Wayne adaptation ever existed.) They've earned the right to explore the hearts of good guys — and one very good girl.
Excellent cinematography and editing. No nervous jump cuts — a sense of pace (and an awareness of physical space) appropriate to the time. Great dialogue — but it's a Coen Brothers movie, what else could it be? Great acting, too.
Hailee Steinfeld hits it out of the park as Mattie Ross — a 14-year-old girl going on 49. She has a high IQ, a rigid moral code (hardass Protestanism), a clear-eyed view of the world, deep insight into human character, knows exactly what she wants, won't stop, won't back down from a fight. (She's the real star of the show.) Matt Damon (unfairly slammed in Team America: World Police) is excellent as a cocky Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (pronounced LaBeef, like a slab of meat) who may be full of himself but isn't entirely full of crap. Jeff Bridges kicks as as Rooster Cogburn — who isn't really the Dude character at all, but a mean sumbitch. Both Rooster and the Ranger have their own code of honor. Tom Chaney, the sidewinder who shot Mattie's father, doesn't. Wickedly played by Josh Brolin.
The plot is as simple as the track of a bullet. Mattie wants to track down her father's killer and see him hanged in Arkansas — or kill him if he objects. A quest for justice, not revenge. She pays badass Rooster Cogburn $50 to track Chaney down, but insists on coming along. LaBoeuf is hunting the same guy. After a long hunt, justice is served. Mattie pays a price — the loss of an arm thanks to a snakebite. Rooster carries her for miles and saves her life. Years later, she honors him with a grave in her family plot.
The film takes the West seriously — the language, the religion, the hard life — it really gave me the feeling I was looking through a window in time. No anachronisms. All the little details seemed right. It ends with a heartfelt rendition of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." That seemed right too.