In going back to the original material for their remake (or rather, retelling of “True Grit”, the Coen Brothers’ use the base material with their own intention of intended mistaken wantonness. For this reason, it plays much more light than one would think, especially for a picture made originally by the Duke. Much of this has to do with the casting of Jeff Bridges as the titular character. Bridges plays the man with such a variant detachment before snapping back to a focused pinpoint when battle comes into play that you realize the grand modulation he is able to perceive.
Granted when it comes to his characters, most people mount a perception of Jeff with “The Dude” from “The Big Lebowski” which still remains his signature character. There tends to be a ghost of that character however it may be in every single performance of his since then. While the eyepatch and the drawl here is a much more deliberate decision, his performance in “Tron: Legacy” by comparison points to more elevated Zen mentality. The joy of the performance here is watching Bridges as Cogburn tell stories and drawl on about past adventures while his employer, a young 14-year-old girl looking for her daddy’s killer, watches with an almost disdainful but respectful perception. Hailee Steinfeld as the young girl Mattie has her work cut out for her going up against not just one but three Hollywood heavyweights (mostly in one-on-one scenes…and each with a different dynamic). Her character at times is the hardest to maintain and her acting may seem a little stilted but the role and its dialogue require it.
Matt Damon plays the Texas lawman LaBoeuf who tags along with Bridges’ Marshall to get his part of the reward money for finding the killer of Mattie’s father. Damon plays the man with a ridiculous (and on-purpose) mustache with a sense of the clod but then modulates it back at times to a man of soul. This is the unmistaken craft of the Coens at play. While the film is more an entertainment yarn than Oscar bait by far, its ability to show the depth of these characters, even when they are being played to the point of caricature creates a seemingly dystopian and modern view of their world and ours.
Josh Brolin plays the target character Tom Chaney and imbues him, like Damon and Bridges before him, with an almost tangible mask hiding behind accents, dirt and altered movement, making him at times unrecognizable in relation to other people he has played as well as himself. The resolution of film in tandem is in keeping in time with the book and the narrative despite itself is fairly straight-forward. It is the characters that make it pop.
The inclusion of a medicine man wearing a bear skin is one of the utter highlights of the movie, not because it has story persistence but for the fact that it is so eccentric. It almost seems as if the lone biker from “Raising Arizona” had returned and assumed the role of the King in “Hamlet”. “True Grit” is undeniable fodder in a grand tradition, adequate and as vivid as any other in the Coens arsenal. Out of 5, I give it a 3.
“Men Who Stare At Goats” is another example of a neat script finding its way into George Clooney’s hands that might not have been made otherwise. Again, using the very modern backdrop of the Middle East, the plot takes advantage of a very interesting piece of information in regards to psy-ops programs back in the 70s into the 80s. In declassified papers, the Soviets were indeed trying to work on remote viewing experiments intended to explode or turn military targets inside a war zone without actually going there. Now the question as to if anything or any situation of this was successful is indeed purely speculation.
The movie, based upon the book of the same name, continues a predilection by Clooney for interesting material but he and his team realize that you can only take the audience so far. The humor in this film is meant as a balancing stick since there is dark places to go. However, in all fairness, it never goes to the dark depths it needs to. The effectiveness is grasped simply in how much of a paradox can be created in the scenario. Jeff Bridges, although good, at times overplays it. It is more towards the end when he is almost defeated that the deep voice and true angle comes out and by extension the true dramatic acting that he is always capable of. This is when he is outstanding. Clooney also has certain moments when the veneer of the star himself is shaked clean (which is a hard thing for someone in his position). One specific part is when he comes out onto a secret base defeated and is not quite sure how to handle the situation. You can see it in his eyes.
The person who gets the thankless element in all this is Ewan McGregor who must portray the audience’s eyes and ears as a man trying to find a story (which he inevitably does). There is also the incessant references to the soldiers of remote viewing as “Jedi Warriors” which undoubtedly reflects the impact of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” at the time; the paradox being that McGregor played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequels. This of course does not go lost on the likes of Clooney and his co-producer/director Grant Heslov, here making his first directorial outing since that might have been what led them to McGregor initially. Life imitates art in roundabout ways. Add to the mix, in a limited supporting role, Kevin Spacey who at times shows a small glimpse of Keyser Soze, most specifically in a scene where he leers over a defeated Clooney smoking a cigar. You can see the relish the character takes in this action which is apparent when the trajectory of his character is explored. This is the kind of person Spacey is great at playing because even his angle of Lex Luthor didn’t show a glimpse of what is touched on in bits here. On top of all of this, the music is great whether it be “More Than A Feeling” by Boston or “Everybody Wants You” by Billy Squier in balance with an Arabian tinged score. This all adds a tinge of realism but also of the surreal.
From an insider perspective, the film also very spryly shows the advantages of shooting in certain locations which emulate exactly the feel of the actual place while obviously saving money on actual production costs which is the name of the game today. This film was shot in New Mexico around Albuerquerque, Roswell and White Sands but also Puerto Rico (which most likely stood in for some of the war torn towns). Both of these places offer significant incentives which shows that even bigger financial companies do have to think about the bottom line even with a cast like this. It makes it possible.
“Men Who Stare At Goats” again shows the intelligence and conscious thinking in terms of thought patterns to new generations of filmgoers but like “The Informant”, “Men Who Stare At Goats” might suffer from an aspect of being too intelligent and effective for its own good at times despite a smart script and even smarter cast. Out of 5, I give it a 3.