And they say remakes aren't any good.
I was expecting a lot of things: superior performances, Coen-wit, gruff and tough Jeff Bridges, and so on. I was not expecting a wonderful family movie in the manner of Disney adventure movies of the 1950's. It's got all the classic elements - a plucky heroine, bruisers with hearts of gold, cartoon evil villains. But combined with a simple yet engaging story and a crackerjack script, the Coens made a film with enough joy and heart to remind you why you fell in love movies in the first place.
And what a script! This is a worthy sequel to O Brother Where Art Thou, with the same sharp wit and attention to character. It's the latest set in historic Coen-land, an Old West where it's best to keep your friends at arms length and your enemies in another county.
In the midst of all this desolation, in walks Hurricane Mattie, who's going to change at least a few men's lives wherever she goes. Quick-sharp, we learn at once that she's no wallflower, as she verbally decimates the hornswaggling horse merchant trying to take advantage of her. Bad move, bucko. If Jane Austen lived in Tennessee instead of Bath, she might have written this young girl into existence; for what is Mattie Ross but a younger, grittier Elizabeth Bennett?
Little Mattie Ross (can I just say, WOW Hailee Steinfeld) is in town to avenge the death of her father, armed with nothing but smarts and a whole lot of spunk. (I would root for her for best actress, but in an utterly bizarre turn of events, apparently you can be in every single scene of a movie and somehow be eligible for best SUPPORTING actress.)
The cinematography was also wonderful. It's impressive how the Coens found parts of Texas that are as barren and unforgiving as anything in arid Nevada, and they've sussed out snowy locales that breathe cold through the screen the way the Ozarks did in Winter's Bone.
But all throughout, there's a black sense of humor shining through bleak scenes of violence and death. Whenever things threaten to get too dark and scary, in walks Matt Damon, playing against type as a dilettante U.S. Marshal with one hell of a superiority complex, despite a lack of courage, achievement, or wit. If Mattie is Elizabeth Bennett, Marshal LaBoeuf is the Mr. Collins of the bunch. His buffoonery, combined with Mattie's bravery and Rooster Cogburn's desert pragmatism make for one hell of a trio.
There's nothing really to say about Jeff Bridges, except that he's terrific as always. I suspect it's the lack of vanity in his performances that stop him from being considered an 'acting powerhouse,' even though he gives his all in pretty much every role given to him (even Tron: Legacy). I suspect they gave him the Oscar last year only so the Academy could say, "see? We know that not all acting has to be big and emotional," and then wash their hands of Bridges and another generation of actors who are contemplative instead of showy. But as we all know, he is One Cool Dude. (And one day I'll get around to writing about Starman, one of the best movies you've never seen).''
It's a crying shame that this movie is a dark horse contender for the Academy Awards, but unlike certain other films I could name (the one about dancing crazies, the one about the voiceless King), at least it deserves its place at the awards table. It's a fine piece of work, and you can tell that it was conceived out of love and not a cynical need to impress.