27 May 2011 | Rockwell_Cronenberg
Surprisingly un-Hollywood. Unsurprisingly brilliant.
The least "Coen" of all of the Coens films is also one of their finest. It has a few Coen inflections to it (Damon's twang of a voice, a few random mustached characters crossing paths with our heroes) but for the most part it's a lot more straight forward and less humored. Surprisingly this doesn't detract from the film at all, which is a riveting character journey in classic old school Hollywood fashion. And while generally "old school Hollywood fashion" would be something I would cringe and run away from, the Coens make it enjoyable, emotional and breathtaking. The technical qualities are all astounding; fantastic costumes, a beautiful score and some of the most exquisite cinematography I have ever seen, courtesy of the always reliable Roger Deakins. It's such an entertaining film, with some emotional power that resonates afterwards. There's a lot of twists that I didn't see it taking and none of the characters ended up being what I initially expected them to be. There's a real lack of obvious arcs for these people and that was a nice surprise. The Coens do what they can to avoid Hollywood conventions in what is, at it's core, a very Hollywood film.
Above all else, the film is a character piece and what a wonderful one it is. Unsurprisingly, these people are written very intelligently, given lots of depth and room to grow and surprise. There's a constant battle over what grit truly means and over the course of the film the balance shifts back and forth over which of the three has the truest grit. From the very opening, we see that Mattie Ross has a whole mess of it, this headstrong girl who won't back down to anyone, despite her small stature. Hailee Steinfeld is remarkable here, an actor with talent well beyond her years. She's entirely convincing, taking a character that could have been this annoying little brat and making her simultaneously strong, whip smart, endearing and adorable. I enjoyed watching her in every second. Jeff Bridges was different than I had expected, but I love his arc throughout the film. Maddie goes to him because she believes he has the most grit of all and that he is the right choice for her, but as the journey goes on she doubts her decision and Rooster Cogburn plays with our perception of him quite a few times. Bridges was my least favorite of the three, performance-wise, but that's not a huge slant given how highly I thought of the other two. Matt Damon gets arguably the most interesting role, a character who is detestable when we first meet him and then has the large task of making us realize that he just may have the truest grit of all. LaBoeuf is a silly man who thinks too highly of himself, but as the film progresses it becomes very hard not to care for him. He's a good man at his heart, as are Maddie and Rooster, and it makes it easy to root for all three of them to come out of this alright.
This is a film that I enjoyed even more than I thought I would, a Coen film in the most un-Coen of ways (which was a nice change of pace given that their previous effort, A Serious Man, is probably the most Coen film out there). I enjoyed living with these characters very much and wish that there had been more time to just be with them on their journey. The final confrontation with the men they are hunting is turns suspenseful, surprising and a little too short-lived. I didn't much care for the epilogue, but with the wildly entertaining journey that came before it, I can't fault the film that strongly for it. It's a real cinematic piece, surprisingly Hollywood for the Coens, but it doesn't fall into a lot of the traps that it could have. In fact, it does the opposite, jumping into holes where it could become clichéd and sentimental and then digging it's way out, surprising at every turn. I like that the story doesn't quite end after the basic plot is resolved, because it's not about hunting down the man that killed Maddie's father and hoping to bring him to justice. It's about so much more. It's about these characters and finding out who they really are when it all comes down to it.