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True Grit

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have brought us some of the most memorable characters to the big-screen while trying on a variety of genres. From uproarious comedies (Raising Arizona) to absorbing thrillers (Fargo), the award-winning writer/producer/director team have stamped their signature style, making them not only notable filmmakers, but modern American masters.

Now they take us to the Old West, adapting the acclaimed novel True Gritby Charles Portis, first published in 1968, delivering an archetypal tale of redemption and retribution. In true Coen fashion, story and character come first and the result is a gorgeous film that is charmingly funny, at times unsettling, and downright delightful. It’s that rare cinematic experience where its only flaw is it leaves you wanting more. The story is narrated by Mattie Ross, who reflects on a lively time many years ago back when she was a fourteen year-old (a remarkable Hailee Steinfeld), seeking to avenge her father’s death at the hands of Tom Chaney (a despicable Josh Brolin), a no-good drifter. Briefly employed at her family’s farm in Dardanelle, West Central Arkansas, Chaney took off into Indian Territory (Oklahoma) after stealing $150 in cash and two California gold pieces off Mattie’s father. Mattie, a tough-as-nails, God-fearing young woman storms her way into Fort Smith looking to hire a deputy marshal to help her hunt down Chaney, who has reportedly hooked up with “Lucky” Ned Pepper (an unrecognizable Barry Pepper) and his gang.

She’s pointed in the direction of an incorrigible old drunk named Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (a perfectly cast Jeff Bridges), known for his questionable tactics and acute tracking skills. The one-eyed Cogburn can’t escape Mattie’s sharp wit and concedes to take the job and reluctantly agrees to take her along when he realizes there’s no shaking her. They are joined by a the stalwart LeBeoff (Matt Damon, wisely understanding a supporting role ), a cocky Texas Ranger with his own reasons for hunting down Chaney. The unlikely trio brave wintry terrain as they tangle with some wily characters while getting on each other’s last nerve.

The Coen Bros. and their amazing track record continue to blow me away. Even some of their supposed misfires (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty) are still fun to watch. Here, they do just about everything: writing, directing, producing (some guy named Spielberg chimes in), and editing, and the result is a perfect film.

Yes, you read that right.

Instead of flaws, I found characters I wanted to revisit again and again. I found the Old West brought to life in all its dirt and dust. At no point did these locations (filmed in New Mexico and Texas this past winter) feel like studio sets. Instead, I witnessed a fully realized world filled with the kind of colorful background and supporting characters that so often inhabit each Coen Bros. film.

Much of how I feel about the film has to do with The Coen Bros. but credit must go to the cast as well. Actually, like most of their films, a salute to the casting director is in order too. This is a keenly selected and irreplaceable cast.

Everyone is spot-on, but Steinfeld as Mattie had the viewer’s heart. She sells the smart, sharp-tongued old soul-in-a-teenager’s body on all levels, and conveys a tender vulnerability that’ll win your heart. In the beginning of the film, when we see this obstinate girl exhaust Colonel Stonehill (a splendid Dakin Matthews) as she negotiates for horses, we witness not only a character come to life, but also discover a true talent.

Later, we witness with Mattie a violent standoff in a cabin between two low-lifes and Cogburn, where we see Steinfeld look on in horror at the grisly outcome. She may talk big, but when it comes down to it, Mattie is just as rattled as you or I would be. Steinfeld exudes an endearing purity and persevearance throughout, as we see this defiant girl, slightly foolish and naive, exhibit true grit.

Steinfeld is indeed the find of the film, but she is also complemented (and at times, elevated) by an eclectic supporting cast. While playing up the stand-up lawman, Damon adds some needed comic levity to the film, yet he undeniably is taken seriously when needed. Once you get used to the facial hair on the actor’s still-boyish face, it’s easy to hang with LeBoeuf (pronounced La Beef). 

As Chaney, Brolin embodies an untrusting piece of trash just by his facial expressions, but his hard-to-placce accent adds an uncertainty to the character that is just right. Then there’s Pepper as “Lucky” Ned, a scrawny rat who has an inevitable showdown with Rooster.

The guy you can’t take your eyes off of, though, is Jeff Bridges. From his body language and grunts, to his gruff voice and drunken hysterics, it is a delight to just sit back and watch him. This is no one-note performance, as Bridges gives Cogburn a hilarious audacity and a brutal bluntness. It could have been a cartoonish role, but like the two other main characters, there is actual growth here, as we see Cogburn come to terms with who he is and the man Mattie needs him to be. Bridges has always been an absorbing actor to follow and gravitate to, and this is yet another classic role for the Oscar winner.

How does this compare to the first adaptation, the 1969 John Wayne classic? All I can say is that the Coen Bros. were not out to remake the only movie that earned Wayne an Oscar. Bridges is still a large presence, which the character calls for, but nowhere near the towering presence of Wayne. They went for a more literal literary adaptation, digging deeper into the story, framing Mattie as the central storyteller and protagonist. Like so many of their films, they hint at a darkness here as they maintain their token quirks while adding needed depth.

Two key talents, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Clint Mansell, return to join the Coen Bros. to remind us just how impacting their presence is. Like his Oscar-winning work in No Country for Old Men his steady watchful eye takes its time with expansive landscapes and captures just the right shadows and lights in interior shots, all the while portraying the appropriate mood.

Like Deakins, Burwell has worked on a variety of films, but has been a longtime collaborator with the Coens. He culls 19th century Christian hymns like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," displaying different variations throughout the film that serve to comfort Mattie and carry her along her journey as a source of strength. At the same time, these songs aren’t used in the most uplifting way which is a nice change. Instead they are contrast to the stark environments and atmosphere of the story.

There will be loyalists who will scoff that The Dude has replaced The Duke. They will even whine that Cogburn's eyepatch is on the wrong eye. Let them cry. Many are already saying this doesn’t feel like a Coen Bros. movie. A comment like that leaves me scratching my head. While I do see the Coen stamp on this classic source material, I don’t see the need for True Grit to be ”a Coen Bros. film”.

It seems clear to me that their goal here is like all of their previous best work. That is to allow characters to tell their story in an engaging way. What we have here is more than a masterfully made Western that I’d recommend to anyone, it’s that rare film which warrants repeat visits.  

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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