True Grit has just about gotta be the most un-ironic thing the Coen Brothers have ever conjured. The Coens have explored the landscapes (No Country for Old Men) and themes (law and order in Fargo and the “man on the run” in Raising Arizona) of Westerns before, but this is their first stone-cold stab at the genre. They’ve done remakes before, too, lest we forget the travesty of The Ladykillers. Yet it is here where they play it completely straight and deliver a polished, hard to dislike, feature film liquored-up with top shelf quality right down the line.
Sure, there’s Coen-esque humor here and there, but the humor was present in the John Wayne original and presumably in the Charles Portis penned novel upon which both are based. The Coens do a magnificent job with the screenplay that features stand-out voice-over work (especially in the wonderfully composed opening scene) and authentic-sounding dialogue that never reaches the impenetrable antiquated verbosity of an episode of Deadwood. Resident cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell do a bang up job in their respective roles, achieving in this western what Sonnenfeld and Burwell achieved in the gangster film Miller’s Crossing, which some twenty years ago found the young Coens at their most un-ironic.
And then we have the cast. Jeff Bridges apparently stumbled right off the set of Crazy Heart and simply traded his guitar for a six-shooter to play Rooster Cogburn. He wisely doesn’t attempt a John Wayne impersonation, and instead with his gruff-voice and grizzled appearance, makes the role his own. Meanwhile, Matt Damon takes full advantage of working for the Coen Brothers by speaking with a mangled tongue for half his scenes, a quirky little piece of self-indulgence that works wonderfully. Finally, there’s Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, who gives an assured, stern but heartfelt performance as the young girl who hires Rooster Cogburn to track down the man who killer her father. Hers ranks behind Jennifer Lawrence’s turn in Winter’s Bone for breakthrough performance of the year.
True Grit is a film seemingly without fault. Yet there it just is – confident, surprisingly kind, beautifully photographed and scored, colorfully acted, flawlessly directed. It’s more of a master class in how to film a Western or a remake than it is a powerful piece of cinema in its own right. It’s as much a throwback to the Coens of Miller’s Crossing as it is a testament to their maturity as filmmakers. These boys always had a lot of gumption. Grit, you might say. Often accused of being consummate poser-filmmakers, well-studied and dressed-up all pretty-like but lacking authenticity, them boys might have finally proved dem fellers wrong. Or maybe they’ve just proved that like all great auteurs, they’ve never really changed expect now they have bigger stars, bigger budgets and a closet full of awards behind them. With True Grit they seem to be telling their audience and critics alike, you can take it or leave it. I reckon I’ll take it like it is.
Written by David H. Schleicher