‘True Grit’ First Impressions Leak as Late Showdown Nears

A sprinkling of clues pop up on Twitter as the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” — maybe the year’s final big awards contender — quietly starts to screen

Paramount Pictures has two of this year’s biggest last-minute entries into the Oscar race – and the first of them, “The Fighter,” drew lots of attention, strong buzz and clear awards potential.

True Grit CDNow a showdown is nearing for an even bigger and later entry from Paramount: the Coen Brothers’ version of the Charles Portis book “True Grit,” with Jeff Bridges in the role that in 1969 won John Wayne his only Oscar, and a supporting cast that includes Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.

Sight-unseen, the movie has long been considered a potential awards heavyweight, maybe the last one of 2010; it landed in the top five of several pundits’ Oscar predictions before anybody  had seen it.

After initial reports that it wouldn’t begin screening until December, the movie was quietly – very  quietly – unveiled about a week ago.  But you won’t find much reaction from the handful who’ve seen it: Paramount has embargoed all reviews and responses until Wednesday, December 1 at 10 a.m. Pacific time.

Still, a few clues have slipped out. The morning after a very small screening on the Paramount lot last Monday, the Los Angeles Times’ “Hero Complex” columnist, Geoff Boucher, tweeted, “Meeting Jeff Bridges at 10 to talk about my new favorite movie of 2010.”

Presumably he could have been referring to Bridges’ other  December release, “Tron: Legacy” – or presumably he could claim as much if he was accused of violating an embargo that included Twitter.

Later on Tuesday, Jeff Bridges and T Bone Burnett reportedly hosted their own screening – and on the heels of that, a few more tweets appeared, most along the lines of “Loved True Grit! Coen Brothers did such a good job. Jeff Bridges was amazing.   I now want to learn how to ride a horse and fire a gun. :)”

A couple of those tweets apparently came from overzealous Paramount employees, who took down their fulsome praise in short order.

And then over Thanksgiving weekend Jeff Wells mentioned screenings but said “I can’t say exactly when or where,” while a few more people on Twitter talked about a weekend screening in New York.

The handful who implied that they had seen the film were enthusiastic (“True Grit = Master Piece”; “finally, after decades of disappointments, a western done right”), though it’s hard to trust the veracity of all of them. One tweet raved about the film the writer referred to as “Eastwood’s True Grit,” which it most assuredly is not.

One aspect of the film, meanwhile, has been let out: Paramount sent CDs of the film’s soundtrack, by Carter Burwell, to guild members and critics’ award voters. (That’s the CD cover, above.)

The music is for the most part somber and elegiac; it’s a spare piano-based score, rife with echoes of old gospel tunes and Protestant hymns. (The first time I heard it, I thought Burwell had a little too much of a friend in “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” though on subsequent listens the score sounds more original.)

The music is lovely, and it wouldn’t feel at all out of place as an alternate soundtrack to Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” What’s not evident, despite some more portentous and dramatic moments, is the Coens’ twisted sense of humor.

Incidentally, the two songs used to great effect in the film’s first two trailers – the Peasall Sisters’ stark “Where No One Stands Alone” in the teaser, Johnny Cash’s doomy “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” on the second trailer – are nowhere in evidence on the CD.

As to whether Burwell’s score is an accurate indication of the tone of the film, that answer will have to wait until Wednesday morning.

At that point, I’ll have something to say in this space … so stay tuned.