True Grit

I don't like the Coen brothers, don't like Westerns, and have never been a Jeff Bridges fan, so didn't see the remake of True Grit when it was in the theaters. But my brother brought the DVD by this weekend, and we saw it last night. It was great.

The Coen brothers have basically made a career out of regarding WASPS as a strange, alien species whose habits and mannerisms are to be examined with a mix of condescension and horror. In a typical Coen movie, brutal Anglo simpletons commit crimes which have unforeseen consequences. This was the basic plot of Blood SimpleFargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, and The Ladykillers. All of these movies are populated with bumpkins and hayseeds and con men, most of whom speak with exaggerated Midwestern or Southern accents.

Burn After Reading mocked a more upscale brand of WASP (the kind who went to Yale and works for the CIA), as well as more downscale ones. The scene with the tuxedo-clad middle-aged men toasting each other and singing Whiffenpoof-style, and the scenes with Brad Pitt as a gym employee mindlessly dancing stood out.

Recently, however, the Coen brothers seem to have softened their view of the goyim. No Country for Old Men, made in 2007, featured a semi-sympathetic Western protagonist in Josh Brolin and a completely sympathetic one in Tommy Lee Jones.

True Grit is actually a paean to WASPs. The young girl, played by Hailee Steinfeld, is prim and self-righteous, but her defining traits are her resolve and fortitude. Jeff Bridges plays the John Wayne role, Rooster Cogburn, arguably the hero of the piece. He manages to imitate Wayne, out-gruff him, and throw in a little Lee Marvin (from Cat Ballou) while he's at it. It's a masterful (if slightly overdone) performance. Matt Damon is great as always as a Texas Ranger and former Confederate soldier who seems a bit taken with himself, but also proves noble in the end. Josh Brolin, to his credit, doesn't overplay the bad guy role, which would have been easy to do.

The rest of the cast are colorful dimwits of the type traditionally favored by the Coens, but the main characters are given such great lines that I found myself straining to make sure I heard every one, some of which were hard to make out through the accents. The effort was worth it, though, as the straightforward cleverness with which they lacerated each other was worthy of Elmore Leonard.

In the end, of course, it's not ethnic attitudes that make a movie good or bad -- as interesting as those are to note. It's plot, acting, and dialogue. All three are excellent here.