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Coens’ “True Grit” remake finds sharper focus, sharper talent

Steinfeld, Damon and Bridges (from left) are a posse to be reckoned with in "True Grit."

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is very concerned with honor because she believes her family has lost theirs. It died with her father, shot by a murderous scofflaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie means to get that honor back, and a helping of justice with it, and she’ll do that however she can. This 14-year-old is not about to smile and fiddle with her bonnet while the local lawmen sit on their hands. “True grit” may be the descriptor of the bounty hunter Mattie seeks out, but it should be stitched into her saddle. Suffer fools she will not.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen know their way around determined characters like Mattie. They ought to — they’ve written enough of them. These souls, all very different, share a sense of drive (whether it’s to do good, evil or something in-between): Marge Gunderson, Tom Reagan, Loren Visser, Jeff Lebowski, who found a urine-stained rug reason enough to put down the joint and find the hero within. This affinity makes the Coen brothers a crackerjack choice to to remake “True Grit”; obviously anyone who’d remake a classic Western starring John Wayne needs to be familiar with intestinal fortitude. As they are wont to do, the Coens even go one better, swapping Robert Duvall for Matt Damon and The Duke for — loins, gird thyselves — The Dude. Wayne fans may cry heresy; those who open their minds a touch, though, will find these sly directors know precisely what they’re doing. “True Grit” is not a lazy trace of the original, an homage with meatier performances, more inventive casting and a different (and arguably more interesting) focus. 

“True Grit” 2010 shifts the spotlight to Mattie and her quest, thrusting Steinfeld front and center. She displays the same fearlessness as her character, infusing Mattie with determination to burn. Hers is the breakout performance of 2010, maybe the decade. Mattie strikes out alone into the Oklahoma terrain in search of someone to help her hunt down Chaney. Her only stipulation? She gets to do the killing. She hears of a local legend, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a full-time drunkard/sometime bounty hunter rumored to have “true grit,” and offers him a reward for catching her father’s killer. Cogburn mistakes Mattie’s youth for naïveté at first, but her persistence and her money win him over. The two set out for Indian territory, where Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang, with a squeaky third wheel: conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, sinister and funny), who’s chased Chaney all the way from Texas. Because LaBoeuf is everything Cogburn is not (articulate, sober, possessed of soap), it’s a mismatch that produces some big laughs. That patented Bridges mumble makes off-the-cuffers into one-liners. Cogburn’s assessment of a violently botched shootout in which LaBoeuf is injured — “That didn’t pan out” — is golden. The line belongs to Portis, who wrote the novel, but damn if it wouldn’t sound right at home in “Blood Simple.”

The gallows humor is a Coen brothers staple; aside from that, “True Grit” bears little resemblance to the Coens’ body of work. They’re trying someone else’s new tricks instead of getting up to their old ones. The film looks like a vintage Western, with its endless expanses of land and looming skies. Cinematographer Roger Deakins revives his gift for gently coaxing his surroundings to tell their own story. It’s a bit sad that the scenery must play understudy to the essentially faultless performances. Brolin has one note, but he plays it smashingly, while Pepper’s ringleader is a surprisingly reasonable chap. Damon plays LaBoeuf for laughs and adds a welcome undercurrent of personal entitlement. Bridges’ gruff, disheveled ne’er-do-well has critics foaming at the mouth with praise. It’s all deserved. He puts such a Jeff Bridges stamp on the performance that comparisons to John Wayne become irrelevent. Even more impressive is Steinfeld, whose screen presence often rivals Bridges’. Steinfeld makes us believe she is the girl who won’t rest until her father’s killer is barking in hell. And you’d better believe she’ll have his leash in a death grip.  

Grade: A

Review: “25th Hour” (2003)

Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” opens with Monty Brogan (Edward Norton, low-key and smoldering as ever) rescuing a half-dead dog from a New York City alley. Curious. Is it a fond memory? Does it speak to some innate goodness in Monty’s nature? It could be both. Or it could point to a less happy ending, a twist of fate. Both are, in a sense, sitting ducks — the dog in the beginning, Monty in the end. The key difference is that the dog didn’t do anything to deserve his circumstances. He is innocent. Monty, we will learn, is not.

Even if Monty’s not innocent, he’s a genial enough guy. He’s strong-willed, street smart, cordial but never overly familiar with his clients — all good qualities for a drug dealer to have. Greed turns out to be his undoing. It’s Monty’s last night of freedom before he starts a seven-year prison term for cocaine possession/intent to distribute, so at times “25th Hour” feels like a death march with one probable ending. Monty’s childhood friend Frank (Barry Pepper) reasons that he actually has three choices: He can do the time and come out broken, commit suicide or run. Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Monty’s other best friend, has a more hopeful (possibly “delusional”) outlook: He will visit Monty in prison; he will care for his dog; and when Monty’s sentence is over, life will go back the way it was. Jacob wonders why prison has to change things. That Frank and Jacob discuss this in an apartment with a window overlooking ground zero is telling, an atmospheric touch to underscore the grim mood of this evening. Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) can’t think seven years ahead; she’s just worried that Monty’s gradually pulling away from her. His fater, James (Brian Cox), alternately tries to bolster Monty’s spirits and wonders aloud how Monty let himself get into this situation. Monty’s quick to remind his father that he wasn’t so critical when the drug money kept his bar afloat.

Unusual about “25th Hour” is the way the secondary characters’ motivations and lives are more intriguing than the protagonist’s. This could be seen as a flaw, or a subversion of expectations. Monty has an expiration date stamped on his freedom; the course of his life has been decided. There’s little room for spontaneity. What’s surprising is the way his friends deal with this looming expiration date. Hoffman’s Jacob is a poor schlub, a teacher besotted with one of his students,  Mary (Anna Paquin). He channels his frustration over Monty’s situation into an ill-advised kiss with the 17-year-old, whose expression is a silent scream. Pepper, all bravado and suppressed hostility, needs someone to blame for Monty’s fall. Naturelle is an easy, vulnerable target (a “gold-digging spic,” he calls her). Dawson reacts like a wounded animal, making it clear she understands that Monty’s friends and associates suspect. No one has to say it. And why not? She’s as guilty as everybody else — guilty of enjoying Monty’s steady cash flow, of waiting too long to urge him to get out of the business. Dawson is terrific in the part, determined to make Naturelle deeper than a trophy girlfriend in a skin-tight silver dress.

The subtext Spike Lee infuses into “25th Hour” is that everyone is looking for someone to blame for Monty’s mistake, which provides a natural — and artfully rendered — metaphor for post-9/11 New York City. Lee certainly doesn’t hide this, even beginning “25th Hour” with a shot of NYC’s skyline with the twin beams of blue light is striking. It’s a doozy of a mood setter that suggests Lee will chronicle how those attacks knocked New York City’s people flat, stumbling and furious like bees stunned by smoke. He illustrates all that frustration, all that anger no one knows where to direct, in a breathtaking scene where Norton spies “fuck you!” scrawled on a pub’s bathroom mirror and launches into a powerful, no-holds-barred tirade against everyone he can think of: Korean grocers, blacks, Indian cab drivers, Enron-styled rich crooks. It’s a moment where one rant captures the collective anger of millions of people. For that scene alone, “25th Hour” may be the definitive portrait of New York City reeling back after 9/11.

Grade: B+