The Coen brothers have delivered some of the most challenging films of the last few years, ever since winning Oscar glory for contemporary Western “No Country for Old Men.” The Coens’ remake of the 1969 film (or as some would say, the second adaptation of the Charles Portis novel) “True Grit” does constitute as a bit of a departure for the duo in terms of cerebral thematic storytelling, but as filmmakers, “Grit” serves as yet another affecting and above-average entry to the brothers’ canon.
“True Grit” easily deserves a place as one of the greatest modern depictions of a classic Western. Certainly there have not been many, but the Coens’ film possesses more maturity, natural humor and emotional impact than most films period. The genre tag of “Western” in some ways comes merely as happenstance; “True Grit” would receive sterling marks as any type of film with such consummate storytelling.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld stars as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old with maturity and intelligence well beyond her years determined to seek and apprehend her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She seeks the assistance of a veteran marshal with some questionable morals named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who she’s been told is a man of “true grit.” Mattie impressively twists Rooster’s arm into leading her on an expedition into Choctaw territory to hunt Chaney. Though he plans to go it alone, the tenacious Mattie insists upon accompanying him.
The story of “True Grit” clearly thrives on their unlikely relationship. Even the whip-smart Mattie must inevitably converge with a loss of innocence on so harrowing a journey and Cogburn’s shoot-first attitude gets challenged by his new caretaker responsibilities. Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger LaBoeuf also adds a nice third dynamic to the ensemble floating in and out of the action, but he also serves as a key piece in Rooster and Mattie’s ever-changing relationship.
Steinfeld goes toe-to-toe with Bridges like you wouldn’t believe. Although the old-timey dialogue the Coens use makes about everyone in the film out to be a robot at one time or another, Steinfeld, in trying to play a smart kid who thinks she knows best, exudes a slight naivety that’s simply perfect for the bravado of Mattie. Bridges gives a performance tons more memorable than his Oscar-winning one in “Crazy Heart.” That film might have earned him the hardware, but Cogburn is far more emblematic of his prowess as an actor. As with “The Big Lebowski,” it seems the Coens bring out the very best in the old-timer. He’s hysterical as the stubborn old sharpshooter with a penchant for whiskey drinking. Cogburn fits his “take nothing too seriously” style as a person and actor, but by no means does it hamper his ability to dial up the seriousness needed to make “True Grit” a cutthroat Western.
Yet the humor above all else resonates in “True Grit.” The climactic events provide the necessary gravity and intensity to make the film feel epic, but the Coens’ true stamp here comes with the humor. So organic at times, you have to wonder whether the Coens intended the film to be so funny, but you appreciate it regardless. They write characters and situations so pitch perfectly that a grin constantly slips across your face throughout this film, especially as Mattie verbally outsmarts every adult that the movie introduces.
Bottom line, the Coens set out to make a Western and their finished project delivers it in terms of scope and drama. They brand it with a cheeky and slightly irreverent humor that only they seem to know the recipe for, but with exception of Cogburn’s jumbled speech all audiences will find it accessible. That’s the trouble with the Coens: most audiences don’t operate on their wavelength, but as “True Grit” continues to become one of their most financially successful films, the finished product provides all the evidence as to why.
So where the Coen brothers have taken a step back in intellectually rich filmmaking for the sake of connecting with a wider audience, I for one will not lament the sacrifice given that “True Grit” embodies many of the great trademark qualities of their films regardless. No sweeter victory can come for a filmmaker when great critical reception meets high popularity. More so when the finished product casts a recognizable reflection of its maker.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen, Charles Portis (novel)
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon