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‘True Grit,’ ‘Rabbit Hole’

The Coen Brothers have always had a peculiar relationship with Texas, maybe because the sense of Wild West recklessness is still cultivated by urbanites. It’s a complex feeling, though: A lone Ranger (sans mask) named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) endures a share of mockery in True Grit, but it’s forgiveable — the movie is just so damn entertaining.

I barely noticed a contraction in the dialogue until the waning minutes of the film, which imbues the tale with a poetic majesty without being stilted. Yet the Coens keep everything in the realm of the real; this isn’t some commonplace revenge fantasy but a devil-in-the-details character study of a girl (Hailee Steinfeld, who’s remarkable) and a wizened marshal-for-hire (Jeff Bridges, better even than his Oscar performance in last year’s Crazy Heart). It avoids predictable, touchy-feely sentimentality while still being emotionally stirring.

Less stirring is Rabbit Hole — perhaps because it tries too hard. A couple (Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart) work through their grief over the death of their child in wildly different ways. It’s a prickly story about yuppies in denial where so many of the characters seem to want to be hated — or at least misunderstood. Grief is hard to portray in small doses (everyone deals with loss uniquely), and to try to make a movie of nothing but is too great a task for director John Cameron Mitchell. Kidman’s OK, but the standout is Miles Teller as a regretful teen. He and Steinfeld should make a movie together.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

True Grit: Five stars; Rabbit Hole: Two stars

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 24, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

‘The Fighter:’ ‘Rocky 2.0’

With all the homoeroticism (and lesbian subplot) in The Wrestler two years back, I was hoping The Fighter — with an always-buff Mark Wahlberg, above left, as an aspiring welterweight — might, Rocky III-esque, idealize the male form for gay audiences. No such luck. We have to settle, instead, for a gritty and highly watchable character study set in the world of boxing. I’ll adjust.

In many ways, The Fighter is the obverse of Black Swan: One is about a girl in the arts that lures you in with cliches about ballet films, then turns out the be something totally different; the other is about man in sports that avoids a lot of cliches until, about three-quarters through, turns out to be Rocky in disguise. (Both films also have the hand of Darren Aronofsky in them, who also directed The Wrestler.)

Such misdirection works in the film’s favor, because it allows the story to unfold with the immediacy of a family drama, and this family is full of drama. Mom (a fabulous Melissa Leo) coddles her seven useless harpy daughters while offering up her son Micky (Wahlberg, more heartfelt than ever), the only one with potential, in a series of bad bouts.

Even worse: The entire town of Lowell, Mass., idolizes Micky’s crack-addict brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a has-been who spends more time getting high than helping his little brother achieve what he couldn’t.

That may sound like a familiar plot, and it is familiar — you think of On the Waterfront, and are tempted to call it Rocky 2.0 — but the approach is cattywampus, almost disorienting. You think you know where it’s headed, but it surprises you.

With its cinema verite look and painfully authentic performances — especially by Leo and Bale, who’s gaunt and scary as a tweaked-out loser — conjure up everything that’s frightening about poisonous relationships of all kinds. It’s the season’s most unexpected crowd-pleaser.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Three stars
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center — Mockingbird Station

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens