'True Grit' a great escape

Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2010

There are certain characters that are captivating to watch, like a headstrong young girl too filled with a sense of vengeance to realize she's a young girl. Or a gruff marshal-for-hire who goes by the name of "Rooster" Cogburn, a name that always keeps you guessing if he's about to do something very befuddled or very pitiless.

Characters like these two have popped up many times over the years with swaying effectiveness. But these two in particular appeared over 40 years ago in Charles Portis' classic story and followed shortly afterward in the famous John Wayne vehicle "True Grit." The Coen Brothers have taken it upon themselves to give these characters a slick yet classic-feeling rebirth. In doing so, they've ensured the intrigues of Mattie and Rooster stay in the western world this time, resulting in marvelous scenes we would hate to see replicated in another genre anytime soon.

These scenes stay away from overblown shootouts. Guns are used in decision-making and to get the dirty jobs done. Cowboys and outlaws are plentiful as they get the drop on each other over a cross-country manhunt. In true Coen fashion, sharp tongues and edginess occupy every scene. Straying from their usual fare for a more commercial approach, the violence isn't near as grisly or twisted as a "Fargo" or "No Country For Old Men."

Mattie and Rooster are in pursuit of the man who gunned down Mattie's father. They're joined on and off by a Texas officer played by Matt Damon. Mattie has hired the reluctant, drunk and over-the-hill Cogburn for the quest because he was described as the one in town who would be the most merciless if he caught up to his prey. That's good enough for the vengeful youth. She accompanies him both to make sure he can actually deliver as well as see her father's killer taken down with her own eyes.

Rooster naturally doesn't want his new employer, especially a little girl, along for the ride. Jeff Bridges' performance as this reluctant tough guy gives us some of the best joys here. He's a completely new personality. Funny, flawed, yet egotistical for a reason, this is a different hero than the glamorous cowboy that can be stereotyped. And he's certainly something different than the marquee attraction John Wayne brought to the role way back when.

Despite several big name stars, the story belongs to young Steinfeld's character, and it should. This is Mattie's mission. She's too old for her age and too young to do as much as she thinks. Her back and forth with Bridges is hilarious. More than that, you can't help but wonder how you would talk to a guy like Rooster if you were 14 and paying for a killing.

Theatrically released westerns are few and far between. In fact, the last one that immediately comes to mind is 2007's "3:10 to Yuma." Coincidentally, this was also a remake of a classic that was based on a printed story. Westerns have a great appeal for their untamed image. Their themes aren't unique to the genre. Things like vengeance, justice and love, are found anywhere. Only here they get thrown into a world of people dealing with them before many modern sophistications were around to deal with them. Westerns also favor outdoor scenes, adding a layer of wilderness that can enhance both beauty and danger. Action goes with the territory in each of these stories, and it's fascinating. Anyone can watch a cop fire a gun on TV, but when cowboys shoot it up there's a romantic element. It's pure adventure.

But it's not the fact that this is a western that makes it good. It's the fact that it's so enjoyable to watch. This isn't always easy. In fact, many westerns go straight to video for a reason. The Coens have mastered the wild west in what could be their most commercial film to date. It's visually stunning. It's funny. It's something you have a good time with. Like these pictures used to do when they were made several times a year, the audience feels like they're along with the lawmen's quest for the bad guy. Talk about escapism.

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