Fresh from the news that the Coen Brothers had received another nomination in the directing category at the 83rd Academy Awards, and that their newest film, True Grit, had received ten nominations, I rushed into the city to see the film on its opening day. The Western genre is certainly not one of my favorite genres, but this return to 'true' Western tradition certainly didn't disappoint. While it still doesn't stand amongst my very favorite films of the year, it is a brilliantly dialogued, very well acted and beautifully shot film. The Coen Bros', long two of my most respected filmmakers, have made it their style to be freshly original with each film they make, and they are able to tackle multiple genres with effortless ease. When I heard that they were re-making a John Wayne film I was surprised and puzzled as to why I was hearing such positive reviews. But then I discovered that it is actually a re-adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 novel, adopting an alternative approach to it's acclaimed, but I believe flawed 1969 predecessor. Jeff Bridges takes on the role that claimed John Wayne a Best Actor Oscar, 'Rooster' Cogburn, and he receives great support from Hailee Steinfeld (in what is extraordinarily her first film role) and Matt Damon and very briefly Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper.
The career of the Coen Brothers has spanned across almost every genre, often adhering to those typical to classical Hollywood; including film noir (Blood Simple and Fargo), gangster (Miller's Crossing), screwball comedy (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) and musical (O Brother Where Art Thou). Having always challenged the boundaries of genre, the Coens' create films that work both as appropriate homage to the typical conventions, but also inclusive to the highly imaginative and subversive flair of their auteur style. I actually found True Grit to be their most conventional and conformative film, which deemed it seem unlike any other Coen film I have seen. True, the Western is a genre you can't really mess with, because it is so grounded in tradition, but very few quality Westerns spring to mind from the last decade. Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) is one, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford also wasn't bad, along with the Coens very own No Country for Old Men (2007). Paul Thomas Anderson's spectacular American frontier film, There Will be Blood (2007) is also endowed with Western themes. True Grit, despite some unfortunate mumbling from Bridges, which deem a lot of his likely memorable lines unintelligible for the audience, is spectacular entertainment.
The story centres on Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), a mature and headstrong 14 year-old girl who seeks to pursue and capture the man who killed her father, Tom Chaney (Brolin). Chaney was one of her father's hired hands and escapes with his horses and two California gold pieces to join the posse of "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) in Indian territory. When collecting her father's body from the undertakers she inquires about hiring a Deputy U.S Marshall to track down Chaney. She is directed to 'Rooster' Cogburn (Bridges), a rugged and merciless lawman she is told possesses 'True Grit'. At the same time, a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Damon) has arrived in town tracking the trail of Chaney following an unrelated murder in Texas. LaBoeuf suggests to Mattie that he should accompany Cogburn, declaring it a two man job. Mattie rejects this competitive proposal because LaBoeuf wishes to escort Chaney back to Texas to be hanged for the past crime, and she wants Chaney to know that his hanging is for the murder of her father. After finally securing Cogburn's services, creating one of cinemas most mismatched allegiances, he tells Mattie to meet him the following morning. On arrival she discovers a note instructing her to return home, and that he would pursue Chaney alone. She catches up to him later in the day to find that he has partnered with LaBoeuf and agreed to share the reward from Texas. Bitter at Cogburn's disrespect of the contract, which specified that she was to accompany him on the hunt, and determined to prove her worth, she is reluctantly given permission to join the men. The film chronicles their chase of the elusive Chaney, and the obstacles they meet on the way, both from the lawlessness of the land and internal conflict between an increasingly drunken, disinterested and wearisome Cogburn, and the frustrated LaBoeuf, who leaves the group at one point to start an individual pursuit of Chaney. Mattie, driven by her desire for justice, remains the strongest and most focused amidst the selfish rivalry that develops between her colleagues.
True Grit is a great example of a near-dead genre. The Coens confident decision to revive an already classic of the genre is a risky one, but they pull it off beautifully. They transfer the slick, fast-talking dialogue of the novel into their screenplay, and it works to provide consistent amusement amidst the engaging drama. It's a compelling story, equipped with all the typical Western elements; the quest for retribution and justice in a harsh, lawless land, the scouring of the wilderness, mismatched posses and engaging pistol shootouts. I found the conclusion to be a bit predictable, but essentially most Westerns end much the same way. The violence is often brutal, but I have seen few Westerns this accessible to a wide audience. After their last film, A Serious Man (2009), which was one of their most bizarre, True Grit is pretty accessible, and this is proven by its success at the box office and a likely determinant of it's recognition at the 83rd Academy Awards.
Roger Deakins beautiful cinematography may just win him his first Oscar, after missing out twice in 2007 for his exceptional work in No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. One of the key themes in the Western genre is the taming of the wilderness, with it often proving to be as large a threat to the protagonists as the enemy they are pursuing. Deakins beautifully captures the surroundings and transforms it both into something to be feared but also to be marvelled. I find there is nothing better than a sequence transpiring amongst softly falling snow onto the hair and shoulders of the characters. Time has no importance here either, as the days drift into one another, with only justice and vengeance fueling their pursuit. Carter Burwell's work with the score is also fantastic, as are the costumes and the make-up.
Jeff Bridges has a lot of fun as Rooster, transforming himself completely into the gruff world-weary lawman that cares little for the affairs of others. His character undergoes the most change throughout the film, and he becomes genuinely impressed with Mattie and wishes to help and protect her. The pursuit of Chaney also presents an opportunity for Rooster to take down Ned Pepper, a long sought-after outlaw. Most of Bridges' dialogue is amusing and quotable, but a great deal of it is lost in his often unintelligible mumbling. The sequence where Rooster clambers off his horse, drunk, and then attempts to re-convince LaBoeuf of his exceptional shooting skills, is particularly memorable. While Bridges' performance is great, I really think the Academy has overlooked Ryan Gosling this year in favor of Bridges, who certainly won't beat out Colin Firth again. The film's highlight is 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, in her first film role. Despite receiving a supporting nomination, she is the lead and centre of the film, but is at times pushed to the periphery of the script for the purpose of exposing the performances of her companions. She dominates the first third of the film, and it is worth it alone to see her incessant and relentless bargaining with a local trader over the sale of her father's horses. When Bridges and Damon join in though, she is given much fewer lines but still manages to hold her own in every scene. She is a revelation. Headstrong and no nonsense, she is still revealed as childlike and innocent on other occasions, and her chemistry with Bridges is impeccable. Matt Damon, who is always so versatile, also gives great support. Josh Brolin gives a very odd and amusing performance, as does the often underrated Barry Pepper.
I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed True Grit. I love the Coens and this is certainly one of their most accessible recent films, which is likely to build once again the recognition and respect that audiences gave to the Westerns of old. It is one of years best no doubt, but I think it lacks a spark that made other lead contenders like The Social Network, Black Swan, The Kids are All Right and Winter's Bone so memorable to me personally.
My Rating: 4 Stars