The Coen Brothers don't aim to reinvent the Western with True Grit; quite the contrary. By going back to the Charles Portis novel for inspiration, enlisting Carter Burwell to compose a score that recalls the golden era of the once-proud genre, and paying close attention to every detail, the critically lauded duo instead offers up what may be the most satisfying...read more
The Coen Brothers don't aim to reinvent the Western with True Grit; quite the contrary. By going back to the Charles Portis novel for inspiration, enlisting Carter Burwell to compose a score that recalls the golden era of the once-proud genre, and paying close attention to every detail, the critically lauded duo instead offers up what may be the most satisfying traditional Western since the genre was muddled by spaghetti and revisionism in the late ’50s.
Her father senselessly gunned down by notorious outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) seeks out trigger-happy U.S. marshal Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to follow Chaney into hostile territory and ensure that justice is served. Though initially rejected by the marshal when she states that she will be joining the hunt for her father’s killer, the headstrong Mattie proves she has the makings of a true trail-hand when she purchases a horse and stubbornly follows Rooster and Texas ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) along for the ride. But the closer the trio gets to their target, the more treacherous the journey becomes. Later, just when it begins to appear that the trail has run cold, Mattie discovers that the most harrowing part of her adventure is still yet to come.
First things first, if veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins doesn’t finally earn an Oscar for his work on True Grit, there is truly no justice in Hollywood. Thanks to Deakins, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit is a visual feast right from the haunting first shot -- seducing us with the aftermath of a senseless killing, then holding us rapt as we’re introduced to the character of Mattie Ross, a straight-talking firebrand whose fragile young heart has already been blackened by a lust for vengeance. The character is exquisitely embodied by talented young newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who portrays Mattie’s complex range of emotions with a dexterity generally reserved for actors well beyond her years -- and level of experience. Strong-willed and determined from the moment we first meet her, Mattie is perfectly capable of stepping up to care for her family after her father is viciously gunned down, though the more time we spend with her, the closer her vulnerable side floats to the surface thanks to the many subtle character beats that slowly add up to give Mattie Ross vivid texture.
Then, of course, there’s Bridges -- one of the most respected actors in film for good reason. He entered into a new era of grizzle with last year’s Crazy Heart that seamlessly carries over into his role as the crusty, hard-living Rooster Cogburn. Any actor would have been foolish to try to imitate the iconic swagger of John Wayne; fortunately, Bridges is a smart enough actor to blaze his own trail, and strong enough to walk tall as he does it. His Cogburn is precisely the brand of gruff lone wolf that has come to define the American Old West in film. Occasionally ill-tempered but always even-handed, his acute perception of justice is rooted more in intuition than in the laws of the land. And though Cogburn’s unapologetic gruffness is without question the single trait that makes him such a fascinating personality, the Coen Brothers’ script offers some well-placed character exposition that helps to make him more of a full-bodied character than a simple Western caricature. On the other hand, virtually every character in the film, with the sole exception of Mattie Ross, skirts the line in this respect (viewers may instinctively reach for a hanky after watching Barry Pepper spray his lines through mangled teeth), though Brolin does fill the boots of a psychopathic Western villain rather nicely. Likewise, it’s the frequent, tempestuous banter between Cogburn and LaBoeuf that lends a much-welcome sense of levity to the proceedings, and Damon handles those scenes as effortlessly as he does effectively.
Nonetheless, while some of the humor and character nuances that Joel and Ethan Coen work into their screenplay do indeed distinguish True Grit as a “Coen Brothers Film” (perhaps a bit more so than, say, Intolerable Cruelty, which feels more like a job for hire than a labor of love), it’s the fact that the celebrated siblings knew when to rein in their quirky impulses that reveals just how much care went into the making of the film. While the die-hard Coen Brothers fan may quickly sense the pacing, performances, and tone that have long distinguished their work, chances are that anyone who walks into True Grit hoping for nothing more than an all-around solid film wouldn’t necessarily recognize it as the work of an auteur (or, in this instance, a pair of auteurs). With this film, it’s the Coens’ seeming ability to step out of the way and allow the original source material to take precedence that speaks to their strength and savvy as filmmakers, and in a catalogue that includes such undisputed classics as Blood Simple, Fargo, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, True Grit comfortably ranks among their very best.