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After taking some time to play with silence ( No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man), and a comparative misstep working in the modern era ( Burn After Reading), The Coens are back into their comfort zone, filling top tier actor’s mouths with massive spoonfuls of impossible dialogue. Sure, not all of these words are their own, but the brothers share the innate ability to make everything they adapt sound like it was conceived by only them. I have never read Charles Portis’ book, so I cannot speak to how much the dialogue matches the original text, but I have seen the original film, and watched it a second time with the audio commentary, which features western genre and American West historians Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Boze Bell and J. Stuart Rosebrook, who discuss some of the differences between the book and the film. I also have access to Wikipedia. This familiar tale follows the adventures of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), whose father is murdered by a petty criminal named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Following the collection of her father’s body, Mattie takes to hiring a man with ‘true grit’ to hunt down Chaney, and bring him in – dead or alive. She soon discovers Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed curmudgeon of a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Cogburn eventually takes Mattie up on her offer, and after an attempt at ditching her allows her to join him and newly arrived Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who himself has an interest in Chaney on the bickering road to retribution.

True Grit
True Grit doesn’t feel like the kind of immediate, magnetic neo-classic as something like Fargo or No Country for Old Men, but I can’t point my finger on the reason for this. For all intents and purposes, there’s nothing expressly wrong with this film. Perhaps it has something to do with this story being told in popular parlance before (I read No Country for Old Men after seeing the movie, so every plot movement was a surprise to me), or just a case of expectations being placed somewhere in the stratosphere, being met and not exceeded. Since I was expecting I’d enjoy a Coen Brothers retelling of this particular story, I’m left with little to say about True Grit, but am quite curious about its box office success. Along with Black Swan and The King’s Speech (a movie I didn’t like a whole lot, but appreciate for its simplicity in this context), True Grit managed to crack the top 25 for money making on a modest budget, with an emphasis on art, performance and a non-mainstream narrative, rather than three hours of cool spaceships, cars that turn into robots, and 3D effects that look kind of like a stoner’s favourite black light poster. Not that there isn’t a place for black light spaceship punching car-bots, they’re just overwhelming the market at this point.

I’m guessing that the film’s surprising financial climb to almost $250 million (it is easily the Coen’s biggest financial success ever) had a lot to do with its humourous streak, which never quite oversteps into pitch blackness like Fargo, or utter surrealism like The Big Lebowski, which was far from a box office smash when originally released. A lack of goofy energy keeps me from comparing the comedy to Raising Arizona or The Hudsucker Proxy either. O Brother Where Art Thou is probably the best analogue in the Coen canon. This version of True Grit is much more of an intentional comedy than the original (perhaps I just didn’t get the joke), which works because the Coen’s use their patented comedic voice to tell what has always been a generally funny story (or so I hear). The whip-smart dialogue is usually the key funny element (‘It astonishes me that Mr. LaBoeuf has been shot, trampled, and nearly bitten his tongue off, and yet not only does he continue to talk but he spills the banks of English.’), but there’s a touch of the usual Coen weirdness at play too, such as the scene where they meet a bear covered doctor, or the fact that Lucky Ned Pepper’s henchman Harold the thug makes animal noises. The thing that really makes Bridges’ Cogburn better than Wayne’s (besides the fact that Bridges is a better actor than Wayne) is his grandfatherly chatty quality. The Wayne version of the character comes off as bitchy, but Bridges finds charm in creating a character that threatens to tip into camp at any moment. The cast generally follows my extremely high expectations, which sounds like faint praise, but really isn’t. If anyone sucked I’d have something more to talk about. I do very much hope Hailee Steinfeld keeps up the good work, and makes bright, non-high school romantic comedy choices in the upcoming years. For the record I am continuously impressed with Matt Damon’s range and charm, and I now officially forgive Barry Pepper for Battlefield Earth (it only took me three great performances to get there).

True Grit

Video


For whatever reason (they’re both kind of westerns?) I had assumed that True Grit would visually be an old timey answer to No Country for Old Men, but it’s more of O Brother Where Art Thou?’s sibling. Roger Deakins, arguably the best living, working cinematographer, is certainly on his best behavior here. There’s nothing revolutionary or transcendental about the photography here, but Deakins makes incredible use of scale, and makes some surprising choices in terms of contrast and colour quality. True Grit cannot be confused with a monochromatic production, but Deakins often lights the frame like a black and white film. The daylight scenes feature blown out, nearly white skies and landscapes, and the night scenes are pitch black with harsh highlights. Though there is some slight edge enhancement, the hard contrast of deep black and lighter elements is probably the most impressive thing this transfer has going for it. Details are sharp on all levels, but things are at their best when we’re given the chance to absorb stark vistas. The biggest issue is a bit of over-sharpening on the whitest snowy sequence, creating some minor edge haloes. The last act, which appears to be heavily digitally augmented, is a little over-smoothed, but I didn’t notice any other major artefacts.

True Grit

Audio


Though the overall tone and look recall O Brother Where Art Thou, this sound design recalls No Country for Old Men. Well, if that film had any music that didn’t only show up on an almost subconscious level. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 isn’t excessive, but what it lacks in bombast it makes up for in sensation. Like many, many Coen Brothers features, True Grit is a celebration of subtle aural touches, and their contrast with ear-splitting loudness. The Coens’ films tend to also deal in subjective hyper-realism, like Spielberg films, minus the explosions. A prime example of the mix’s strengths comes when Mattie cuts a hanging man from a high branch. The branch itself creaks and cracks, while the sound of Cogburn and his horse below her is cut to a far off cry. Another interesting addition is that of super low bass frequencies, which are utilized in occasionally surprising places, creating odd tension during seemingly banal moments. Carter Burwell’s score, based around a series of traditional hymns, is unassuming, and very traditional, but works well within the stylistic confines of the track.

True Grit

Extras


The extras here are unsurprisingly sparse, and also unsurprisingly to anyone that knows the Coens’ proclivity for avoiding the spotlight, does not include a lot of input from the writer/directors themselves. ‘Mattie’s True Grit’ (5:10, HD) is fluffy a behind the scene featurette/interview with actress Hailee Steinfeld, who discusses her star making role with genuine insight and intelligence. This includes footage from her screen test, raw behind the scenes footage, and a couple bits of her training with horses. ‘From Bustles to Buckskin: Dressing for the 1880s’ (8:00, HD) covers Mary Zophres’ costume design, as discussed from the point of view of the designer herself, Jeff Bridges and Barry Pepper. This is again brief, but there’s some interesting information shoved into its runtime, including a brief history of the cowboy hats. ‘Colts, Winchesters and Remingtons: The Guns of a Post-Civil War Western’ (4:30, HD) unsurprisingly covers prop master Keith Walters’s work with historically accurate items. ‘Re-Creating Fort Smith’ (11:20, HD) continues the quick-fire behind the scenes information on sets, location, and production design, including interviews with executive producer Robert Graf, production designer Jess Gonchor, and art director Christy Wilson. This also covers the use of the actual period steam train.

‘The Cast’ (5:30, HD) is actually more of a making-of EPK than a matching look at the cast. It includes lots of footage from the film, and interviews with Steinfeld, Damon, Pepper and Bridges, who spread their love all over each other. ‘Charles Portis: The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Heard Of’ (31:00, HD) is the meatiest, and most educational extra on the disc, and is actually long enough to appreciate. This featurette is made out of interviews with novelists, editors, screenwriters and Dwight Yoakam, who run us through the book’s original author’s life and career, from his first writing as a reporter, his early novel work, and delves pretty deeply into True Grit itself, and the original movie. ‘The Cinematography of True Grit’ (3:00, HD) closes out the featurettes, and features interviews with Roger Deakins, the cast, and producer Robert Graf, along with choice images from the film. Things close out with a trailer.

True Grit

Overall


True Grit is not quite a masterpiece on the level of No Country for Old Men, but it’s a great film, and easily better than Hollywood’s first crack at the story (one I swear I’ll get around to reading). The pacing is brisk, the tone perfectly balanced between sly comedy and stoic realism, the photography is breathtaking, and the performances are to die for. This Blu-ray release features a relatively problem free and beautiful 2.35:1 transfer, a sweet and subtle DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and one solid featurette about author Charles Portis nestled between a collection of fluffy EPKs.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray's image quality.


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