What a way to end 2010 with the biggest surprise film of the year. I held off posting my top 10 films of 2010 with the full expectation that TRUE GRIT would undoubtedly enter my top 10, no wait, my top 5 best films of the year. Although I generally quite enjoy the Coen Brothers, I’ve been burned by them in the past (THE LADYKILLERS, BARTON FINK, & BLOOD SIMPLE). However, in the last couple years, they have put out some impressive shit such as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, BURN AFTER READING, and A SERIOUS MAN. As for TRUE GRIT, their latest film, out of the 57 films I saw in theaters this past year, none ended up being so far from my expectations as this movie. As a film, it excels in practically every respect except for the one thing that I regard as being the most important: story. TRUE GRIT contains an understated and beautiful score by Carter Burwell, gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins, great performances by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, and sharp dialogue written by the Coen Brothers. In the end, however, TRUE GRIT is a film whose parts are greater than its whole.

TRUE GRIT is a remake of the 1969 western that earned John Wayne’s only Oscar. It is also an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 original novel from which the 1969 film is based on. The story is about Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14 year old girl who sets out to hire a U.S. Marshal to track down her father’s killer. The killer is a hired hand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who worked for Mattie’s father and ended up murdering him. Mattie decides to hire Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) based on a recommendation and Cogburn’s reputation as being a badass. However, Rooster rejects Mattie’s offer, despite her repeated attempts to convince him otherwise. Meanwhile, Mattie meets Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who has been pursuing Chaney for several months over the murder of a Texas State Senator. La Boeuf proposes to Mattie that he and Cogburn team up to track down Chaney, but Mattie refuses his proposal because La Boeuf intends to take Chaney back to Texas to be hanged for the Senator’s murder instead of her father’s. Mattie finally secures Cogburn’s services and they agree to head out to find Chaney the next morning. The next morning, however, Mattie discovers that Cogburn has already taken off without her with La Boeuf to find Chaney. Mattie chases after the two law enforcers and finds them. Being forced to bring Mattie along, the three attempt to find Chaney and bring him to justice.

I didn’t hate TRUE GRIT and in fact there is much to be admired about it. For one, it never hurts to hire the god of cinematography to shoot your picture. I’m talking about Roger Deakins, who, in my opinion, has inherited the mantle of the dearly departed Conrad Hall, who is my all-time favorite cinematographer. Each frame of this movie is a beautifully composed shot that stands by itself as a work of art. Two shots that immediately come to mind from TRUE GRIT are the very opening where we see Mattie’s father lying dead in the snow at night in the front of some building whose warm light illuminates the body. The other shot is when we are first introduced to La Boeuf as he sits leaned back in a chair and we see his face light up when he fires up his pipe. The film is filled many such shots and for anyone studying cinematography, lighting, or photography, this is a film worth examining.

Second, the Coen Brothers once again turn to the underrated film composer Carter Burwell to provide a graceful simple arrangement that is largely drawn from old gospel songs. The score is piano based, which is an instrument that Burwell frequently uses in his scores (TWILIGHT, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, IN BRUGES, and BARTON FINK). Burwell’s lack of embellishment in his score perfectly complements the storytelling style of the Coen Brothers and it is probably one big reason why the brothers have used him for so many of their films. The TRUE GRIT score is unobtrusive and yet supportive in all the right places. The music doesn’t dominate any scenes but it still manages to enhance the overall film. It is to be noted that in major bullshit, ridiculous fashion, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences recently deemed TRUE GRIT ineligible for nomination for Best Film Score. The reason: The score is not sufficiently original to qualify because many of the tracks are based on old gospel hymns and, thus, are not originally composed pieces. Regardless, the score remains a beautiful little piece that makes a fine addition to Burwell’s already impressive oeuvre.

The third and final aspect of TRUE GRIT that deserves praise and which most critics have likewise focused their praise upon are the performances given by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and especially 14-year old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Bridges has had quite a prolific last couple of years beginning with IRON MAN, his Oscar-winning turn in CRAZY HEART, last week’s TRON: LEGACY, and now TRUE GRIT. None of these films have blown me away, but in all except for IRON MAN, Bridges has provided noteworthy performances. Here, I would even go so far as to say that TRUE GRIT comprises Bridges’ very best performance in his career and if he were to win only one Oscar in his lifetime, this film rather than CRAZY HEART deserves to be the one. First, its not surprising that Jeff Bridges completely upstages John Wayne’s Oscar-winning version of Rooster Cogburn. Wayne was never known for his acting abilities and his earning an Oscar for TRUE GRIT wasn’t so much for his performance in that particular film as it was for recognition of the decades of entertainment he provided moviegoers. Bridges’ performance is based more on the characterization of his character in the novel rather than Wayne’s interpretation. As the crotchety, drunken marshal, Bridges crafts a variation of his character from CRAZY HEART, but I think this time he’s provided with better direction from the Coens and, consequently, we get a richer, more complex, and in the end, a more entertaining and impressionable character than what we saw in CRAZY HEART. For that, I think Bridges is more deserving of an Oscar for this role than for his performance last year (although overall, I still think Colin Firth is the most deserving of 2010’s Best Actor Oscar for THE KING’S SPEECH).

I suspect Matt Damon is going to get overshadowed by the strong performances given by Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld and I hope my suspicions are unfounded. Damon’s La Boeuf lends the film some of its funniest moments as we’re treated to the Texas Ranger’s Boy Scout-ish hard-headedness and dry sarcasm. Damon has made a career of working with Hollywood’s most talented directors and this is the first time he has starred in a Coen Brothers film. In true Coen Bros. fashion, La Boeuf is the sort of quirky amalgamation of different characters that have populated past Coen films and that have helped make their films so memorable.

Finally, we get to the refreshing talent that is the centerpiece of TRUE GRIT: Hailee Steinfeld. For a 14-year old, I was initially struck by how well she commanded the dialogue by not only handling it with remarkable authority, but to also memorize such complex lines of dialogue and speak with the tone and inflections of a young woman of that era. I can’t begin to tell you how many period pieces I have seen where the actors fail to recreate the dialect of that period. Steinfeld ably conveys the resourcefulness, street savviness, and maturity a young woman of her station was forced to acquire during that time period. Steinfeld lends a degree of authenticity to her performance that never once do you doubt. At the same time, she balances the “I mean business” attitude with a sharp wit and at times she also reveals the innocence and naivety of a girl her age. I don’t know about you, but capturing all these character attributes is quite a feat for a 14-year old so to see someone like Steinfeld pull it off, especially in the company of such big stars as Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, is pretty impressive.

Ok, now that I’ve discussed what I liked about TRUE GRIT, let’s go into what I had issues with. As just discussed, the performances were great and the film contains some pretty sharp dialogue. At the same time, I felt the dialogue was too unnatural and at times pretentious, even self-aware. Every character speaks in a prophetic and formal manner that brings too much attention to itself and detracts from the enjoyment of the story. This is not the first time the Coens have used this style of dialogue and the majority of their movies contain a dialogue style that is a bit unnatural. The dialogue in this movie reminded me of the style employed in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? In that film, unlike in TRUE GRIT, the wordy and stylized dialogue was not only restrained enough to prevent the audience from being forced to concentrate too much on what was being said, but the characters seemed to be more likely to speak in that fashion than the characters in TRUE GRIT. Here, I felt the prophetic-style dialogue is written more for its sake than to help define the characters who speak it. Consequently, I was more distracted than entertained by the dialogue.

Furthermore, I am all for authenticity when portraying a certain time period, including nailing the correct dialect of the region where the story is set. What I am not all for is when you can barely decipher what the hell is being said by the character because of the dialect and the character’s speech patterns. I am specifically talking about Jeff Bridges’ unintelligible speech during most of the movie. I understand and appreciate that Rooster Cogburn is meant to be a drunkard, but when you as the moviegoer is forced to strain your ears every time he opens his mouth to understand what is being said is a frustrating and not enjoyable exercise. Unfortunately, because I saw TRUE GRIT in a movie theater, I did not have the option of displaying subtitles at the bottom of the screen and I will have to wait for the Blu-Ray to do that. Now I may be in the minority of people who was unable to understand Cogburn’s speech, but I somehow suspect that many in the audience felt the same way.

The aforementioned criticisms of TRUE GRIT are nitpicky annoyances and if those were the only issues I had with the film, I would have regarded it as a masterpiece. Sadly, my gripes with the film are not limited to just the dialogue writing and Jeff Bridges’ speech pattern. Ultimately, the film falls apart mostly because of its story. After you peel away all the layers that make up the film’s appeal, you are not left with very much. I have seen countless Western movies and I am familiar with the basic plot schemes that make up most Westerns. The search for an outlaw fugitive is a familiar and popular plotline in the Western genre. As a friend of mine remarked to me earlier today, the value of this story is not about building toward a climax or resolution, but rather its value comes from the journey the characters take toward that resolution. I agree. It is about the characters’ journey and TRUE GRIT is perhaps more of a character-driven rather than plot-driven piece. But still, the journey must contain a certain level of pacing and momentum that can hold an audience’s interest. It must still also present conflicts whether they be internal or external. I don’t even mind if the narrative is predictable so long as it is executed well. Unfortunately, TRUE GRIT does not succeed in this regard. Once the journey in search of Chaney begins, the film fails to establish any scope for how long or how distant it will be. One of the things I have always loved about the John Ford westerns is the director’s use of locations to give his story weight and significance. Ford was a master of creating an epic atmosphere through the use of scope. I didn’t get a sense of that here and maybe the Coen Bros didn’t intend for the audience to feel that way. Nevertheless, it almost seemed like our characters traveled a few miles before finally catching up to Chaney and his gang. There was no working toward finding Chaney. It just sort of happens and when it does, it feels anticlimactic.

The second act is the most problematic portion of the movie. The film spends the entire act detailing Chaney’s pursuit, which is punctuated by comic banter between the three protagonists. Conceptually, this is all fine and well, but it is never funny nor tense enough to work. Between Cogburn’s indecipherable drunk talk and La Boeuf’s egotism, the bickering between these characters becomes the primary focus of the story while the actual pursuit of Chaney is secondary. As a result, there is never any sense of urgency.

As for the third act, the ineptitude and stupidity of the villains completely kills any sort of conflict or tension between the characters. I never felt any of our protagonists to be in any danger even after Chaney kidnaps Mattie. The antagonists are one-dimensional and they don’t have enough screen time to establish themselves as interesting characters. After the villains are disposed of, I found Cogburn’s sudden change in heart toward Mattie after she gets snakebit to be jolting and a little implausible. Up until the third act, Cogburn expresses little to no sympathy toward Mattie. However, after she gets snakebit, he risks his life to get her to safety. One can say that being a U.S. Marshal, it was his responsibility to take care of her, but I still found his quick about face to be rushed character development.

In the end, TRUE GRIT comes off as being about a whole lot of nothing. I left the theater without feeling any attachment toward it and I practically forgot I even saw it a couple of hours after it ended. Perhaps I wanted something more from this film rather than a straightforward, traditional Western, which is what this movie is. At a stage in their careers where I expect the brothers to produce more than just a straightforward narrative, I wanted them to deconstruct the Western myth. This was their chance to make their own John Ford film, but instead of doing that, they took the safer, more traditional route and for that, I felt disappointed.