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True Grit (2010) (Blu-ray Review)

3 Jun, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 6/7/11
Box Office $171.1 million
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray/DVD combo pack
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some intense sequences of Western violence including disturbing images.
Stars Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin.

Marked by great performances, bristling dialogue, dark humor and a sparkling display of gravitas, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit manages to completely outshine the 1969 version best known for delivering John Wayne his only Oscar. This is probably the best Western film to come along since Unforgiven.

The story, from Charles Portis’ original novel, is well suited to the distinct Coen style, finding simple truths and humor in seemingly inappropriate places. A young girl named Mattie Ross hires U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn to track her father’s killer and bring him to justice.

Structurally, there are just some things working against the older movie, most notably its mood-killing title song and some questionable casting choices, not to mention its summertime setting in the lush valleys of Colorado, which tonally doesn’t jibe with what turns out to be a tough tale of retribution, regret and loss of innocence.

The Rooster Cogburn of the 1969 version was unmistakably John Wayne, whose legendary screen presence was usually more than enough to buoy lesser films. On the other hand, in the 2010 version Jeff Bridges disappears into the role, reconstructing the character from the traits of the source material. Bridges’ Cogburn is gruff, edgy and unpredictable, just as likely to take out an armed posse with one pass as he is to fall off his horse. I could watch his courtroom introduction over and over again and still glean the enthusiasm from it I did the first time I saw it.

For their version, the Coens have restored the point of view of Mattie, who narrates as an older woman reflecting on a defining chapter of her life. This means the younger Mattie really has to anchor the film to a greater degree required of Kim Darby in the earlier film (who, at 21, was about seven years too old for the part). In this regard, the Coens lucked out with their discovery of Hailee Steinfeld, whose biggest previous acting gig was a Kmart commercial. As is evident from both her astounding performance and a promotional interview included with the disc, the 14-year-old actress displays a remarkable maturity beyond her years.

The Coens also restored the book’s wintertime setting and used locations closer to the novel’s Arkansas and Oklahoma settings, giving the film an earthy feel made beautiful by the cinematography of Roger Deakins.

The bonus featurettes focus on nearly all aspects of the production, from casting to cinematography, and re-creating period towns, costumes and guns. Among the more interesting tidbits is seeing the transformation of Granger, Texas, into an 1878 Arkansas town. Granger was chosen because it has railroad tracks, and filmmakers constructed an elaborate façade onto the real town, including a working post office.

Surprisingly left out of the mix is any insight from the Coen Brothers themselves. There’s also a loving tribute to Portis’ career.

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