Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Release Date: Dec 22, 10
In the past few years, the brothers Coen have been experimenting. With No Country for Old Men, they broke every rule of traditional cinema, and created a philosophical masterpiece. With Burn After Reading, they used Hollywood stars to create one of their most hilarious and mainstream (at least by their standards) films. And with last year’s A Serious Man, they took the philosophical elements of No Country and the comedic timing of Burn After Reading to create something altogether different (if not altogether successful), using unknown actors and personal elements from their childhood to push their boundaries even further. True Grit, however, does none of these things. It is both a return to form for the Coens and an out-and-out throwback to classic westerns.
Those familiar with the 1969 John Wayne film, or perhaps with the Charles Portis novel that both movies are based on, are already familiar with the story of crotchety U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and his quest to track down a killer at the behest of a young girl. The John Wayne movie won The Duke an Oscar for playing a more vulnerable and flawed character than his usual onscreen persona, but the Coens take the touch of darkness in the 1969 movie and amp it up with their usual blend of bleak humor. As always, their writing (like their filmmaking) is direct, well-paced and conflicted. It wouldn’t be a Coens film without a touch of sadness behind every smile. Whether one cares for the their work or not, it’s clear by now that Joel and Ethan Coen are incredibly consistent artists. They are as confident as directors come, and their darkly comic worldview has made them a staple in modern cinema.
However, to merely call True Grit “consistent” does it a disservice. This movie is incredibly fun, in large part because of a fantastic ensemble. The Coens’ casting is in many ways equally important as the writing and directing (really, could you imagine anybody else but Javier Bardem playing Anton Chigurh?) and here they knock it out of the park once again. Jeff Bridges is nothing short of a complete joy to watch as Rooster Cogburn, and his hard-drinking, gun-shooting, mumbling performance may be his most enjoyable since, yes, perhaps the most famous of all the Coens’ iconic characters, The Dude. He’s no John Wayne, but he doesn’t need to be. His simultaneously violent and goofy U.S. Marshall is as complex as he is funny. The other standout is Hailee Steinfeld, the young actress who plays Mattie Ross, the tenacious girl who employs Cogburn’s services to help her find her father’s killer. Steinfeld plays Ross with a no-nonsense, wise-beyond-her-years confidence. However, there are also moments where she conveys Ross’s childlike fears. It’s a dynamic performance, and it’s hard not to feel that Ross is the one in the movie who reveals “true grit” rather than Cogburn, although he is in many ways the one who helps her find it.
The movie has an excellent supporting cast too, led by Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LeBoeuf. It’s refreshing to see Damon play the fool, as opposed to his usual deadly serious on-screen persona. He’s the movie’s comedic relief, yet his character also takes himself and what he does so seriously that it’s impossible not to care for him. Josh Brolin, in a small, yet important performance plays Tom Cheney, the killer of Ross’s father. He’s also mostly played for laughs, although he proves to be menacing and somewhat vile as well. Cheney is a sort of one-dimensional character, but True Grit isn’t ultimately about what bad guys are being chased down as it is about the journey to reach to the aforementioned villains. Barry Pepper also has a fairly important role, as Ned Pepper, the leader of the gang Cheney’s running with. It’s interesting to see Pepper play the one who’s in charge, as opposed to his usual role as “one of the crew,” and he handles his few scenes with a controlled, commanding performance.
Perhaps the one way in which the Coens do push the boundaries in this film is the blending of their style with the traditional western. The plot, characters, score and even the look of the movie are all in accordance with the genre’s classics. However, they also infuse the film with their typically black comedy. The violence isn’t that of the Sergio Leone spaghetti-westerns, but rather that of the Coens’ own brand of pain. One also gets the beautiful cinematography of the Coens usual D.P., Roger Deakins (seriously, give this guy an Oscar already!) synthesized with the long horizons of classic westerns, making the movie very beautiful to behold.
True Grit is ultimately about the people who come into our lives and make an impact without necessarily even realizing it. Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn share a powerful bond, even though they are only acquainted for a short period in each other’s lives. Ross certainly entrusted Cogburn with an important assignment, but what she didn’t necessarily realize is that Cogburn would help to influence who she’d become as a person, and in some ways, one gets the feeling that Cogburn was also forever changed by his interaction with Ross. The rest of the world doesn’t understand, but they don’t need to; Cogburn and Ross are their own people. They are individuals who, without a doubt, have true grit.