“A Coen Brothers film.” Attaching this label to a movie simultaneously tells us everything and nothing, because the only thing we can expect from the prolific sibling duo is that they will inevitably subvert our expectations. The Coens have pumped out work ranging from gritty noir to screwball comedies, from a Capra-esque capitalist fable to a trippy David Lynch homage. For 25 years now, the only thing we could count on from a Coen production was a unique brand of darkly irreverent humor, exceptional craftsmanship, and a heavy dose of ironic detachment.
But some cracks started appearing in that last condition with “A Serious Man,” easily the Coens’ most personal film yet, an investigation into faith that couldn’t help but reveal some of the brothers’ frustration and longing in a possibly meaningless world. With “True Grit,” the Coens have finally given way to their inner sentimentalists, coming up with a film that sincerely affirms the bonds of loyalty, friendship and, well, “true grit,” a concept hard to define explicitly but which the film’s protagonists clearly have in spades. In fact, “True Grit” can’t even really be defined as a “revisionist” Western; though the Coens are generally unmerciful in their depiction of the film’s relatively few moments of violence, and bumbling hero Rooster Cogburn purposefully parodies stereotypes of the heroic lawman, this film easily could’ve been produced in the late studio era, and indeed surprisingly little has changed from the original 1969 version starring John Wayne. There are layers of nostalgia here, not just for the American frontier, but for a bygone era in American filmmaking.
Based on Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name, “True Grit” is a classic revenge story: 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, her father murdered by a dim-witted hired hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Determined to see Chaney caught and hanged, Mattie hires gruff, discombobulated, one-eyed, trigger-happy U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her go after the killer, who has fallen in with a gang of toughs led by the fearsome but level-headed Ned Pepper (played, appropriately enough, by Barry Pepper). Joined on their quest by proud Texas ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), the trio encounter the usual assortment of Western traders and ruffians (though remarkably no Native Americans, despite numerous references to their journeying through In’jun country) as they zero in on their target.
It’s an engagingly simple tale, and one which darts along thanks to the Coens’ remarkable sensibility for dialogue and preternatural knack for spot-on casting. Though I haven’t read Portis’ novel, it appears that the author shared in the brothers’ love for blunt humor and stark landscapes (both physical and emotional), and much of the dialogue is taken straight from the source. The character of Rooster Cogburn in particular here seems to be more faithful to Portis’ original vision; John Wayne never played anyone but John Wayne, and the Duke could never quite stoop to the level of self-effacement necessary for such a parodic role.
Jeff Bridges has never reached Wayne’s iconic status as an actor, although, along with “TRON: Legacy” (which attached far more narrative power to Bridges’ face and voice than any film before it), this film goes the furthest in giving the revered veteran the same kind of screen presence. Bridges mumbles, grumbles and stumbles his way through “True Grit,” striking the perfect balance between drunken incompetence and that incomparable grit. Cogburn may not look or talk like your traditional, upright, noble cowboy hero, but in the end he’ll stare down 4 toughs and roar “Fill your hands, you sonofabitch!!” just like Ethan Edwards would.
But though an entire gang of outlaws might be child’s play for the immutable Cogburn, he has a match in Mattie, who newcomer Steinfeld resists turning into a cutesy mascot and instead plays with remarkable resilience and (God help me) grit. This is frankly an astonishing performance; Steinfeld is asked to go toe-to-toe with actors with something like 545 years’ combined experience more than her, and she carries the film every second of the way. Between Steinfeld and Bridges, it’s easy to overlook Damon, who quietly puts in one of the best turns of his career, sacrificing his usual spot in the lead for an effectively dandyish character role.
“True Grit” doesn’t plunge the thematic depths of some of the Coens’ earlier Western-tinged work like “No Country for Old Men,” “Blood Simple” or even “Fargo,” but the siblings still strongly assert themselves in the genre through their usual mastery of the formal cinematic elements. Cinematographer Roger Deakins turns the wilds of Colorado where “True Grit” was filmed into a bold and menacing canvas onto which the Coens can paint their frontier fable. Composer Carter Burwell calls on 19th-century hymns to invoke a certain level of sentimentality without getting maudlin about things, particularly effective in the closing arrangement of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (the Coens purposefully, I think, homage the imagery and music of “The Night of the Hunter” to suggest an underlying sense of foreboding when the narrative proves too slight). And, as their pseudonymous editor Roderick Jaynes, the brothers display their usual sense of impeccable comedic timing.
“True Grit” plays a bit like a love letter to the era of John Ford, Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann, tinged by the Coens’ unique stylings in only the most restrained fashion. The Coens have resurrected a kind of technically proficient genre filmmaking that was lost to the cynical dismantling of the 70’s, and reminded modern audiences of the kind of rip-roaring entertainment that used to be a Hollywood staple but has lately fallen out of favor. Well, $100 million and counting doesn’t lie: the Western’s got some kick left.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars