Jeff Bridges’s work with the Coen brothers in The Big Lebowski is well known, and as his Academy Award for Crazy Heart shows, he is no slouch in a cowboy persona. But to indulge a comparison of those roles to Bridges’s character in True Grit is to distract the viewer’s attention from the originality of the Coen brothers’ latest effort — so, too, would be a pro-and-con assessment of remake vs. original. Bridges’s Rooster Cogburn and the Coen’s True Grit stand alone.
Bridges leaps at the role with such grind and boast that we are often left with too much to appreciate: the stumbling drunkard (his belly defying the buttons of his garments), the wide-draw lawman, the heart-wrung father figure. Bridges hones his drawl so thick that his lines should sometimes have subtitles, crunching vowel and consonant as if he were chewing through his jawbone. Decipherable or not, he presents a convincing foil to Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef”), the opposing figure of law and duty — sober, educated, and shamelessly conspicuous in a tasseled, yellow jacket. Their moments of showy competition are sublime.
That said, the film really belongs to Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old firecracker determined to bring her father’s murderer to justice. We are devoted to her cause from our introduction. Steinfeld balances the role well, embracing her cherub features but hardening them in a convincing, understated way. Just as Mattie stuffs her father’s cowboy hat to make it fit, so too does Steinfeld fill the role with nuance. Her matter-of-fact-delivery; her voice, thin and sealed; and her tall, narrow stance are elements of a superbly crafted character. Mattie commands respect from friend and foe alike: “You do not varnish your opinion,” mumbles her captor. “You give little sugar with your words,” utters her savior.
But no Coen brothers’ picture rests solely on the actor’s trade; indeed, the brothers often make actors look better than they really are. Here, the Coens continue to impress. They don’t simply avoid clichés, they turn them on their head, making fresh, bold choices in an aged genre. They bring their characteristic flair for crisp, fluent dialogue and achieve some well-earned laughs between the guffaws and chuckles. They bask in expert cinematic frames of depth and height, allowing the viewer to surmise just how high a man can dangle from a tree or just how wide a horizon can expand a grave. They mute the backing palette for a stark contrast with an important symbol: the somber blues of twilight are interrupted by a sparking pipe, the burnt ambers of a desk simmer up to a bowl of red apples. These flashes of color illustrate the film’s treatment of violence - violence that is often sudden, ferocious, and has consequence.
Such is the thematic heart of the movie. True Grit is not a revenge tale or even a justice tale. It is a film about strength in the face of any obstacle, about the compass of respect between the righteous and the renegade. Such is evident from the almost dismissive treatment of the “villain” in the film’s final act, of his virtually nil screen time. The true villain is a more-innate adversary. The climaxes the viewer encounters are not the ritual of common Westerns, they are a universal call to catharsis. We are distanced from our instinct to compare. As Cogburn growls when relaying his plan, “Get ’em to know our intentions are serious.”
The Fighter is not so much a movie about boxing as it is a movie about fighting, the act of conflict, the dynamic of opponent verses opponent. In this sense, the film’s title is fitting — the opposing pugilist as a metaphor for more-personal adversaries. Of course, just about any film concerning boxing uses the sport as a simile for a larger personal struggle, but never has the attention been so lopsided in its focus on the dramatic turmoil of the titular character — the fighter inside the man, outside the ring.
The film’s greatest strength is the tension in the characters. Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, the real-life road worker from Lowell, Massachusetts, who recharged his sputtering boxing career to win the WBU Light Welterweight Championship in 2000. Wahlberg, who has always had a slugger’s physique, brings an engaging sensitivity and restraint to the role. We see him battle on the ropes, but we experience Ward’s toughest matches against his family and in his home: the judgmental eyes of the close-knit community, the scummy mother using guilt to impede his independent progress, and, of course, the crack-addicted brother/trainer, living vicariously and in mediocrity.
Unable (or unwilling) to follow Wahlberg’s example, Christian Bale brings a twitchy, frenetic histrionic to his performance (“I’m squirrelly as fuck!”). Hollow-eyed and sunken-cheeked, he attempts to steal as much of every scene as he can. His delivery might be justified by the reality of his addiction — is this not how a crackhead would act? — but it also seems too obvious. Bale is predictable where Wahlberg is powerful.
Amy Adams appears as the supportive girlfriend, struggling with her own missed dreams and wasted opportunities. Adams proves just as effective playing a foul-mouthed, streetwise brawler as she does a demure and mousy nun. Like Wahlberg, she brings dignity to the tough-as-nails persona — ruggedly captivating, with a charitable smile and reservoir eyes. Her presence (far more than Bale’s by-the-numbers prison recovery) highlights the film’s themes of shame, effort, and redemption.
Director David O. Russell nicely contrasts the gritty reality of Lowell with the glitzy sheen of Vegas, and we can praise the imagination in the display of boxing-match titles over the urban discord of the town or the voiceover of an argument played in unison with an intimate love scene. Less effective is the pixilated coverage of the matches themselves. This last touch is no doubt intended to offer some sense of historical atmosphere to the proceedings, mimicking the visual acuity of an HBO sporting event. But the effect is lost in the climactic bout when the camera wallows into melodramatic slow-mo. Even before this, the fights are rather absurd — tight, incomprehensible batches of choppy editing and one-punch knockouts. The family quarrels have far more “fight” than the ring, and the customary training montages set to a collection of pop-rock hits do nothing to assist.