Once again, the Coen brothers have belied my expectations. But this time, it’s different. Usually, I watch a Coen brothers film eagerly allowing myself to get lulled into the rhythm and pace of whatever genre they have chosen to upend, awaiting the inevitable bending and inverting to come. Films such as Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, No Country For Old Men, Fargo and The Big Lebowski all begin within the context of an established genre, only to play havoc with the audience’s expectations.
But True Grit is exciting and surprising in precisely the opposite way. For the first time in their careers, the Coen brothers have made a movie. True Grit is a Western that does not try to be anything else but a Western. It is a tale spun in the name of entertainment and entertainment only. It is a story about heroes and villains on the backdrop of a vast, untamed and uncaring natural landscape. It fits so snugly into its niche that I couldn’t help feeling that that was some sort of statement in itself. And you know what? It works!
True Grit is a simple, albeit dark, story: young Mattie Ross (Haillee Steinfeld) has lost her father to the murderous hands of unrepentant drifter Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She does not want Chaney brought to justice, she wants him dead. She enlists the aid of drunken, violent and merciless U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and together they travel into Indian country with a Texas Ranger named LeBeouf (Matt Damon) in tow, who wants to find Chaney for his own reasons.
I said True Grit is simple, and I meant it. I have now named all of the characters of note in this story, and Brolin’s role is really only a glorified cameo. When the badguys do show up, it’s “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) who runs the show and gets most of the lines. Beyond that, every other character in this film is really only background, as much a part of setting the scene as the music, costumes, and sets.
And what a fine scene is set. This film looks, sounds and feels thoroughly authentic, deeply steeped in its time. Coen stalwart Carter Burwell’s music mixes in traditional hymns with his usual dramatic flourishes, and over Steinfeld’s narration I at times got the feeling that I was watching a Ken Burns documentary. The costumes and sets are perfect—grimy, beaten, dirty and used, just like the people inhabiting them.
However, while this film is authentic and sweeping, it never feels larger than life. None of the characters are provided exceptionally dramatic entrances or exits. Cogburn simply appears, just as he would in life, does some things, and then leaves. Tom Chaney is far from a black-hatted villain twirling his mustache—he is a weak, malleable lackey drifting aimlessly into our story like he has his whole life. True Grit feels real because it never tries to pretend anything or anyone it depicts is any more than what it is.
But what really made this film for me was the dialog. Of all the films in the Coens’ oeuvre, the last one I expected to be reminded of was Raising Arizona, but like that film the characters in True Grit speak in an antiquated, formal, stilted manner that could be distracting if not so expertly mastered by all the actors. When Damon stands up and tells Steinfeld “You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements,” in his character’s rugged, huffy Texan accent, the audience laughs, but also appreciates how true to the character and the period the line is. Bridges, Damon and especially Steinfeld all master their dialog beautifully, allowing the charmingly antiquated lines to ring true and vibrant.
Bridges’ performance is probably the most eagerly awaited, due mostly to the fact that he takes on one of John Wayne’s most iconic characters. He does not disappoint. In his first film with the Coens since The Big Lebowski—in which he played arguably his most iconic role, Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski—Bridges slips effortlessly into an utterly different character and triumphs. His Cogburn is dirty, unkempt, nearly broken down, but more tender and human than Wayne’s. This character is similar in many ways to the one he played in last year’s Crazy Heart, but this film is far superior in every way, and a better testament to Bridges’ abilities.
But the film belongs to Haillee Steinfeld. She anchors the action within her character’s dynamic mixture of decency and determination, vulnerability and toughness. She seems like the eyes of humanity peering in at the madness of the West, and reacting with a mixture of revulsion and awe.
Matt Damon is often unfairly maligned as a one-dimensional boy toy, despite great work in films like The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Departed, but he once again shows he can act it up with the best of them. LeBeouf is neither the bravest nor the smartest man in the world, and Damon doesn’t pretend that he is, yet still makes him sympathetic and even admirable in ways.
In a small but pivotal role, Barry Pepper stands out, turning a character who could be a dry plot point into a shrewd, not-entirely-evil man eager to figure as easy a way out of this situation as possible under the circumstances. Brolin is fine in the small amount of screen time he gets, despite getting very little to work with.
True Grit is entertaining, engaging and atmospheric. Do not expect your life to be changed, but expect to see an engaging and vivid Western yarn told pitch-perfectly, transporting you to another time and place the ways movies used to when you were young.
True Grit receives a PARL
Written by Justin Mitchell