DVDs: How Good Is Matt Damon? Damn Good
TRUE GRIT ($39.99 BluRay or $29.99 regular DVD; Paramount) — The Coen Brothers movie is solid fun that’s better than the original and more true to the terrific novel by Charles Portis. Hailee Steinfeld gives a funny but very particular performance that could be the sign of a singular talent or a one-off stunt. Josh Brolin is hissable as the villain. Jeff Bridges shamelessly chews the scenery in the hammy role made famous by John Wayne. But I want to talk about Matt Damon.
He gives the best performance of the film as the over-confident Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. The character is nominally comic relief, but Damon makes him the heart of the movie. The little girl is preternaturally calm and mature. Bounty hunter Cogburn is a caricature of the hard-drinking frontierman. Only LaBoeuf is a recognizable human being, a man who is a tad vain but at heart a decent person. Damon gets all the humor out of this easily offended young man but he also makes you care about LaBoeuf and consequently about the film as a whole. If anyone might die in this enterprise you fear it would be LaBoeuf, so all the suspense and drama centers on whether he’ll make it home alive or at least redeem himself as a brave and valued companion. With his accustomed ease, Damon steals the show by playing a supporting role that other movie stars might not deign to accept.
It’s just the latest achievement by one of the best actors working today. Damon’s looks always promise the square-jawed decency of a 1950s leading man. But his talent often lies in subverting our expectations. He broke through as the math whiz in Good Will Hunting of course. Then came Saving Private Ryan, with Damon as every mother’s son caught in the dangers of war. His career seemed set as a traditional hero. But Damon followed that immediately with one of his best and most underrated turns. He became almost invisible in The Talented Mr. Ripley, a mousy killer who subsumes the identity of the people he destroys. Look at the way Damon maintains the anonymous demeanor of a servant in the opening scenes and you’ll see a movie star choosing to become an actor.
He showed he had charisma to burn in the Ocean’s Eleven movies. But it’s the Bourne trilogy that has truly vaulted Damon to the top. If comedies get little respect, even they receive more critical attention than the performances in action films. Damon’s work in the Bourne movies constitutes one of the best action performances on film, equal to Harrison Ford’s work in the early Indiana Jones movies and easily one of the most complex achievements in the genre. Damon delivers the confusion and apprehension of a man who finds a terrified release in the violence he is so clearly capable of achieving, a violence that both thrills and disturbs him. With a minimum of dialogue and often through his face and body movements alone, Damon creates a man audiences live vicariously through but also pity in his desperate desire to know exactly who he is. Best of all, Damon showed the rare restraint of walking away from the franchise before it became repetitive and dumb.
The smart choices continued: the CIA agent in The Good Shepherd, the gangster turned cop in The Departed (proving again how good Damon is at internal conflict) and the hilariously inept stool pigeon in The Informant!. That’s a very funny movie but Damon’s gifts as a comic haven’t been fully exploited yet (despite his amusing work on 30 Rock), any more than his ability to be a romantic lead. Presumably that just doesn’t interest him since he’s barely assayed such a common, almost inevitable role. Politics interests him more, from the complex Syriana to The Green Zone to his work as the narrator of the best documentary of 2010, Inside Job.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Damon’s talent is that he’s only seemed to scratch the surface of what he’s capable of doing. The older he gets, the more interesting and varied the roles he should be able to tackle. Damon’s never been trapped by leading man status but growing more mature will only play into his natural instinct for the interesting and off-beat. Unquestionably, the best is yet to come.