True Grit is the Coen brothers’ most conventional, accessible film to date. Some people say this like it’s a bad thing.
“It’s just a Western,” a colleague scoffed, as if that’s anything to sneeze at. Of course, expectations may have been altered, thanks to the snarky siblings’ recent run with No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading and especially A Serious Man—a triple whammy of pitiless subversion exhibiting a worldview so bleak it makes Kubrick seem warm and fuzzy. The Coens’ peculiar decision to remake Henry Hathaway’s beloved 1969 John Wayne vehicle perhaps promised something more overtly satirical, but instead these masters of genre deconstruction have played it gloriously straight—at least, as straight as the Coens can play anything.
Hewing closer to Charles Portis’ original novel than the previous movie version, True Grit is the tale of young Mattie Ross. In a dazzling turn by unknown Hailee Steinfeld, she’s a 14-year-old spitfire, all business and Bible quotes, holding her own in an unforgiving frontier that’s no country for little girls. Her father was gunned down in cold blood by cowardly horse thief Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and Mattie’s determined to see justice done—even if she has to pay for it herself.
Enter Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, a surly, drunken old lawman with an outsized reputation and suspect personal grooming habits. Played by Jeff Bridges at his most grizzled and unkempt, Rooster delivers his most of his lines in glottal belches, boasting a brilliant knack for re-stating the glaringly obvious with deadpan precision. Introduced in an outhouse, he’s a far cry from Wayne’s iconic portrait.
Hired by Mattie to hunt down Tom Cheney, Rooster didn’t count on a sassy teenage sidekick or LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), a hysterically pompous Texas Ranger with his own designs on Cheney and a set of spurs so huge and noisy that they practically qualify as a supporting character. Damon’s droll performance is a self-deprecating delight, playing that archetypal Coen brothers windbag who never, ever stops talking. Even after biting most of the way through his tongue after being knocked from a horse halfway through the picture, LeBoeuf’s gaseous monologues continue unimpeded, if ever so slightly marble-mouthed.
As these three bicker their way through the Choctaw Nation, the filmmakers lift huge chunks of dialogue directly from Portis’ book, relaxing into the peculiar curlicues of the language while striking a fine balance between character comedy and shocking bursts of violence. Straightforward as the yarn may be, True Grit is still a Coen brothers picture, so weirdly endearing characters periodically emerge from the margins, like the loquacious itinerant dentist who travels wearing a bear skin.
Once again working with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the filmmakers eschew typical Western postcard vistas, instead emphasizing the harshness of the environment. There’s a wintery chill to the landscapes, and they often keep their shots restricted to Mattie’s point of view. The camera stays low, lingering on sad details ignored by the rest of the cast, subtly registering her mounting dread as the bodies begin to pile up.
This limited perspective makes True Grit feel somewhat smaller than it really is—at least at first. The Coens refuse to pump up their big moments with the kind of grandiose mythologizing found in the Wayne version. But they also don’t make a big deal out of de-mythologizing, in the fashion of so many “revisionist Westerns.” They’re simply telling the story in the same matter-of-fact manner of Mattie’s narration, a choice that pays off beautifully in an epilogue that’s both deeply moving and entirely unexpected. Like most of the Coen brothers’ movies, this really opens up on a second viewing.
There’s a disarming sentiment sneaking in through the cracks of Mattie’s tough Protestant stoicism. The pickled, aloof Rooster slowly warms to her prickly determination, but without ever going mushy on us. These are hardened people in exceedingly difficult times, and the growing affection between the two is all the more pleasurable for emerging so subtly.
In the end, I guess True Grit is “just a Western.” But for some of us that’s more than enough.
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon
Running time: 110 minutes