By Jonathan Decker (Family therapist, film critic)
I'm not a believer in being a fan of genres in and of themselves or, conversely, disregarding a film due to the same. I believe every type of film can offer a rewarding movie-watching experience, rendering the genre of movie irrelevant. It doesn't matter if it's romance, action, comedy, drama, science fiction, martial arts, musical…what matters most is quality. I say this because it doesn't matter if you generally like Western films or not; if you enjoy fully-realized characters, ear-stroking dialogue, dramatic tension, unexpected comedy, artistry in film-making, and exemplary acting, you will enjoy True Grit.
Regardless of the nearly universal critical praise the film has received (I myself think it is second only to Inception as 2010's best film), don't get swept up too much in the hype: True Grit‘s story is a simple one. A young girl enlists two bounty hunters to help her track down her father's killer in late 1800's America, and they set out to bring him to justice. That's it. But God (or the Devil, depending on which expression you choose) is in the details, and every frame of this film is lovingly crafted by the actors, directors, and cinematographer.
More of a new adaptation of the original novel than a remake of the John Wayne film version, writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen mix dialogue from both the source material and their own creative minds, producing one of the most poetic (and funny) screenplays in years. This is truly a film that is in love with the English language, albeit that spoken by people of the period. My wife said “It's like a Western by Shakespeare; not that it sounds medieval, but rather that it catches the ear.”
This film is a love letter to the Old American West, the title a reference to (among other things) the hardy spirit needed to survive in that place and that era. Despite being marketed as a rough n' tumble shoot em' up, True Grit displays a truly impressive balance between thrills, heart, and humor, though the comedy is dark and the emotions non-sentimental. The characters are accustomed to being hard-nosed in the face of adversity and evil, which makes the ultimate revelation of how much they've come to care for each other that much more poignant. As these are tough, gritty people, emotion is conveyed more through what is done and what is shown nonverbally than through what is said.
It is in this area that the quality of the actors makes or breaks a film like this. Lesser players need the dialogue to express the emotions for them, but truly great actors can say everything they need to say with their eyes or the way in which they say something. Jeff Bridges' portrayal of U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn is terrific, as expected. He's pretty much a scoundrel, and he mumbles his lines so that only the important bits are understandable; the rest merely conveys that he's a drunken shell of a man. Matt Damon proves once again that he's one his generation's best actors, taking a meaty supporting role whose initial impression (that of a ranger who meets every Texan cliche in the book) betrays hidden depth.
Josh Brolin plays the villain realistically, not as the obvious “intimidating and ingenious bad guy.” Rather, he's a common and rather stupid thug who nonetheless poses a serious threat because of his lack of scruples. The best performance in the film, however, is from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. She displays stubborn intelligence and a great deal of wit, and is possibly the only 14 year old actress one believes could boss around Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.
The musical score blends beautiful original themes with new arrangements of 19th century Christian hymns. My one complaint about the film ceased to be a complaint the more I reflected on it. Simply put, the finale aims for bittersweet realism instead of a Hollywood-ized happy ending. In doing so, however, it's true to the gritty and beautiful world lovingly put on screen for the preceding two hours. True Grit is rated PG-13. It has no sexuality or nudity and very little language. It is quite violent and intense in a few scenes, however, especially one rather shocking confrontation, so parents be warned. GRADE: A+
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Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.