After watching, True Grit, I was left wondering how the project came into existence. Did Joel Coen turn to his brother Ethan and say, “I feel like creating a western that will become an instant classic,” and Ethan responded, “Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s do that.” That exchange wouldn’t surprise me since the Coen Brothers are two filmmakers who consistently operate at a higher level than almost anyone else in Hollywood. While other filmmakers might be cowed into living in the shadow of the 1969 original which won John Wayne his first and only Oscar, the Coen Brothers have crafted a giant of the genre that crackles with electric dialogue, magnificent performances, Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography, Carter Burwell’s haunting score, and all the other quality trademarks the Coens are known for.
In a movie filled with breathtaking cinematography, True Grit slowly opens with a gorgeous shot of lights in the shape of a cross before the picture comes into focus and we see a man lying dead on the ground and another man racing away on a horse. The dead man is the father of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a determined young woman who seeks to bring her father’s killer, the cowardly Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin), brought to justice. “Determined”, is actually a poor adjective to describe Mattie. Imagine if Determined and Tenacious had a baby and then that word baby was pumped full of steroids.
Blesssed with the power to never take “No” for an answer, Mattie seeks out the help of drunken U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man who doesn’t have the reputation as the best marshal, but certainly the meanest. While Cogburn would like Mattie to go back to her family and let him take care of the matter, Mattie won’t rest until she sees Cheney not only hanged, but hanged for the crime of murdering her father. That second part becomes a bit of a problem as Cheney is also being tracked by La Beouf (Matt Damon), an inept Texas Ranger who intended to hang Cheney in the Lone Star state for the murder of a senator and the senator’s dog. The three set out in an uneasy alliance that shifts and develops in unexpected but honest ways.
Unfortunately, my brief synopsis does not do justice to how the Coen Brothers introduce not only their lead characters, but everyone who populates the film. The Coens conducted a nationwide search to find their Mattie Ross and that search paid off wonderfully with the discovery of Steinfeld. While some of the dialogue is lifted straight from the Charles Portis novel of the same name, the Coen Brothers have a certain pace to their writing that, when performed correctly, absolutely sings. Despite her young age, Steinfeld plays the role as if she’d been starring in Coen films for years. When you see her haggle over the price of horses, you can’t help but marvel at not only her comic timing, but complete confidence. The character of Mattie could easily become irritatingly precocious, but in the hands of Steinfeld and the Coens, you’re always cheering for her.
The other standout is Bridges. No one wants to stand in the shadow of John Wayne, but between the two Cogburns, I actually prefer Bridges performance. While Wayne was good in the original, I believe his Oscar was more of a lifetime achievement award (he deserved to win it for The Searchers). In the 1969 film, it feels like Wayne is fighting with his own persona to make an authentic character. Bridges’ Cogburn, on the other hand, comes off as lived-in and authentic. The drunkenness is sloppier, the delivery is more guttural (Creative Loafing’s Curt Holman brilliantly described it as a “gargle”), and it’s an overall more layered and rewarding performance. And like the rest of True Grit, it’s also damn funny.
The entire film is a remarkable balancing act. While the Coens have danced with tropes of the Western in their previous films (the Stranger in The Big Lebowski; the desert vistas of No Country for Old Men), with True Grit they have wholeheartedly embraced the genre with a film that is both easily accessible and yet undeniably their own. I can’t help but marvel at how they can transition from the dense, difficult ideas presented in their previous film, A Serious Man, to a rousing yet offbeat picture that effortlessly juggles exhilarating shootouts with bizarre encounters like meeting a medicine man in a bear suit offering dental care. It’s a picture that works on every single level and then makes up a couple new levels to work on as well.