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Equal Parts Homage and Originality:

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True Grit
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt
Damon, Hailee Steinfeld

SADDLE UP! Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld smoke ‘em out in the latest Coen Brothers movie. Courtesy photo.

movie stars
There seems to be a lot of great film stories floating around Wilmington. I’ve been around long enough to hear a lot of good ones. My personal favorite came from the late, great Eddie Blakely. For those lucky enough to know Eddie, he was a treasure trove of Wilmington film history, a proverbial fly on the wall for two decades. While working on a project together, he told me a story about the Coen Brothers, which stuck with me.

It was 1993, toward the front end of a 10-year production span that has never been rivaled in this area. Lots of different films made their way here. One of the most unique projects of that era was a little film by the Coen Brothers named “The Hudsucker Proxy.” It’s difficult to remember a time when the Coens weren’t part of the cultural lexicon. This was before “Fargo,” before “The Big Lebowski,” before “No Country for Old Men” and the constant influx of awards.

This was a time when producer Joel Silver backed them with a $40 million budget for a Capra-esque movie about the guy who invented the hula hoop. It was an inspired little movie that lost a lot of money. And Joel Silver saw it coming. After sitting in the Screen Gems screening room and watching some footage from the film, Silver became livid. An argument ensued, and he reduced his complaint down to a three-word phrase, which he soon screamed from every corner of the building.

“Asses in seats!”

That was his job: to produce movies that made money. To end up with a marketable product. Silver’s rallying cry may have fallen on deaf ears. The Coen Brothers may be many things, but marketable is usually not one of them. “True Grit,” their newest film, may buck that trend. It’s the most accessible film of their careers and a fantastic Western to boot.

Audiences may remember the original—an oldie but goodie featuring the legendary John Wayne. The Coen Brothers’ version draws less from the original, and leans more on the original novel by Charles Portis. It’s a classic revenge story: a young girl named Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) comes to town to deal with the death of her father at the hands of a vile outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Though only 14, she is brash and confident. After settling some of her father’s affairs, she decides she needs to take off after his killer. To do so, she enlists a grizzled, old U.S. Marshal. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a husk of a man—well past his prime and withered from years of drinking. He’s more likely to bring his targets in dead than alive.

Mattie runs across another lawman, LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger with eyes on bringing Cheney in for the murder of a state senator. LeBoeuf and Rooster Cogburn represent the duality of the lawless land of this era. One man is motivated by money, the other by a sense of moral outrage. Rooster has no problem killing men. In fact, it comes awfully easy. What separates the good guys from the bad guys in this landscape is a thin line. The only difference between the hero and the villain is a shiny badge. None of this matters much to Mattie. Revenge is her only motivator. She’s an outspoken child, wise beyond her years, and all too eager to run head-first into trouble.

What works so well about “True Grit” is the “frills-free” approach to the Western. It’s a grim and gritty portrayal of frontier life, a world where children are forced to grow up far too fast. Where men are hung in the town square for all to see. Where murder is a daily occurrence. There are no punches pulled here. Harsh conditions and violent deaths are par for the course. The most shocking thing I found in “True Grit” is how unaffected Mattie is by the surrounding decay.

The stark style the Coen Brothers are known for is perfectly suited for a Western. My only complaint is the lack of levels to the film. Every character has one note to play. While they play it well, there’s no nuance here. I hear a lot of modern film critics bagging on John Wayne for his monochromatic acting style, but all the performances in this version of “True Grit” feel beholden to the work of “The Duke.” Bridges and Damon give strong performances, but it’s a lot of bark and very little bite. The revelation here is young Ms. Steinfeld who steals the show away from the veteran performers.

Like all Coen Brothers films, it ends abruptly and leaves the interpretation to the audience. And like all Coen Brothers films, it feels like equal parts homage and originality.

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