Over the course of their careers, the films of Joel and Ethan Coen have, of course, inspired a wide variety of responses: amusement (and quite a lot of it), excitement, fascination, terror, confusion, astonishment, mortification. (Oh, the depressing spectacle of Intolerable Cruelty ... .) But while we audiences have laughed and gasped and occasionally scratched our heads, we haven't, prior to the Coen brothers' True Grit, been moved to tears by scenes of unbridled yet honestly earned sentiment. Guess we can now scratch that one off the list, too.
Don't worry, the writers/directors haven't gone soft on us. Quite the opposite, actually. Despite the plentiful visual and verbal gags that can only be described as Coen-y, their remake of the 1969 John Wayne Western - for which the Duke won his sole performance Oscar - is a terrifically tough-minded, caustic, and, yes, gritty revenge saga that boasts some rather shocking bloodletting for a PG-13 release. (Won't somebody please think of the children?!) Yet while I consider a number of the Coens' offerings to be deeply affecting, especially after repeat viewings, I'll admit I was totally unprepared for the emotional resonance and gut-level pang of True Grit. The film is as marvelously framed, shot, and edited as the best of their works, and about as funny and thrilling, too. But who could have anticipated that it would also be this moving?
Set in late-19th Century Arkansas, the film casts the debuting Hailee Steinfeld as the sensible, determined 14-year-old Mattie Ross, fresh off the Fort Smith train and in search of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who shot and killed her father. Mattie's hunt leads her to Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), the tubby, boozy, one-eyed deputy U.S. marshal whom she enlists to track down and execute Chaney, and to a proud, foolish Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who wants to capture the killer for crimes committed in his home state. As the three begin their pursuit of Chaney across the Arkansas plains - a classic odd couple in trio form - Cogburn and LaBeof bicker, compete, and regard one another with mutual disdain, and Bridges and Damon are exceedingly enjoyable while performing their surly Mutt-and-Jeff (or rather, Matt-and-Jeff) routine. You can be sure, though, that True Grit wouldn't be half the entertainment it is, and certainly not half the heart-tugger it is, without the exquisite thoughtfulness, focus, and naturalism of Hailee Steinfeld.
Before the John Wayne film, True Grit began as a much-loved 1968 novel by Charles Portis, and at first glance, the material seems like a surprisingly traditional choice for the Coens. It doesn't take long, though, to sense what must have been a big part of its appeal; the characters' florid, mostly contraction-less conversation here is like the choicest Raising Arizona dialogue that didn't make the final cut. ("If you would like to sleep in a coffin, it would be all right.") Yet from True Grit's opening scenes, there's nothing alienating about the stylized tones. Partly it's because we're used to this kind of talk in Coen-brothers films, but mostly it's because Steinfeld recites her lines with such unforced matter-of-fact-ness and truth that they don't sound stylized - they sound like like the logical outpourings of a particularly intelligent and precocious teen of the period.
Steinfeld, however, is also a wordless wonder. Whether registering shock at Cogburn's brutality (and drunkenness), or growing admiration for LaBeouf's stalwart dedication, or fear in the face of a snaggle-toothed villain (a nearly unrecognizable, and excellent, Barry Pepper), Steinfeld allows you to feel every subtle emotional transition without fuss or histrionics. And when she bids goodbye to LaBeouf, or stares at a star-pocked sky while Cogburn carries her to safety - in one of literally dozens of arresting images shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins - her simplicity and honesty would be heartbreaking if they weren't actually filling your heart with joy. Bridges, Damon, Pepper, and, in his unexpectedly minor role, Brolin come through with glorious, juicy character turns, but Steinfeld lends True Grit its soul; the young actress brushes away the genre cobwebs and makes this familiar revenge tale feel almost startlingly fresh.
The Coens' latest, with its haunting Carter Burwell score, is filled with scenes you want to watch again and again: Mattie bartering for (and, inevitably, getting) $320 from an incredulous horse merchant; Cogburn slurring and lying his way through a courtroom deposition; Mattie and Cogburn encountering a horse-riding medicine man outfitted in a full bearskin coat, including bear head. And, like all of the brothers' works not titled Intolerable Cruelty, its list of quotable lines is damned near endless. ("If they wanted a decent burial," says Cogburn of some recently dispatched outlaws, "they should have gotten kilt in summer.") Yet what I was most taken by in True Grit - at least on this first of what will no doubt be multiple exposures to it - was realizing that, 15 feature films into their collective career, there are still facets to Joel and Ethan Coen's talents that they're now only beginning to explore. Watching the climactic, almost unbearably beautiful closing shot while the end credits began rolling, I stayed in my seat a little longer than I ordinarily might have, as I needed a few extra moments to dry my eyes and compose myself. At a Coen brothers movie. What's next? A two-character chamber drama directed by Michael Bay?
I can't begin to tell you how much I was looking forward to goofing on Yogi Bear, director Eric Brevig's live-action/CGI outing that, as you might have predicted, is about 10 times stupider than the av-er-age family film. It's certainly not as bad as this summer's hateful Marmaduke, mostly because the animation is surprisingly sharp, and because Marmaduke didn't have Anna Faris or the voice of Justin Timberlake. But it's still unfunny and irritating as all get-out, especially when Yogi - voiced, sadly, by Dan Aykroyd - begins shaking his rump to Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back," and the plotting is ridiculous even by the nauseatingly low standards of the slapstick-kiddie-flick genre. (The mayor is threatening to close down the financially strapped Jellystone Park due to its lack of visitors. Uh ... how about advertising the fact that two talking bears live there?!?)
Before I could properly organize my thoughts on the sorry subject, though, my editor gave me a challenge: Write a one-sentence review of Yogi Bear that doesn't employ semicolons, and that isn't a snarky, throwaway crack à la the two-word "Shit sandwich" review in This Is Spinal Tap. So:
Ohboyohboyohboy is Yogi Bear a boo-boo.
Happy holidays, boss.