The Coen brothers are my favorite filmmakers. They are so because of their visual style, their flair for the comedically quirky, their absurdly endearing characters and their ability to insert a philosophical worldview into every bizarre tale they tell. And, from their debut of Blood Simple to their breakout hit Raising Arizona to their Oscar winners Fargo and No Country for Old Men, they never make the same movie twice. In a quintessentially Spielbergian way, the Coens have mastered the art of playing to their strengths while continually pushing their own boundaries and exploring new genres, resulting in a pair of filmmakers who continually deliver something fresh and exciting.
Their last film, A Serious Man, was not only their most personal film of their canon so far, but their most divisive. While the darkly comedic elements should have been no stranger to the truest of Coen fans, the ultra-philosophical bent of the film left many befuddled and empty, as its overall pessimistic tone left many audiences unmoved.
Their current film, however, should offer no such controversy, as it is as middle-of-the-road as a film can get, and certainly the most brazen attempt of their careers to cater to the mainstream. True Grit is not only a remake of a hugely popular film that won a hugely popular movie star his only Oscar, but it is a classic Western with movie stars and an easy-to-follow story. The Coens are like a box of chocolates.
True Grit is a classic Western. The Coens’ 2007 Best Picture Oscar winner No Country For Old Men could easily be called a Western, but not in the classic sense. True Grit is classic in the sense that it is set in the old West, when public hangings were still the way of final punishments, horses were the mode of transportation and six-shooters were the law. The Coens would need to tread carefully here, this is sacred territory—no place for their normal out-of-the-box hijinks.
But if we’ve learned anything, Joel and Ethan Coen are masters of adaptation and even though they may have unique stylistic elements, they are, at heart, quality filmmakers, and quality filmmakers will always make a quality film. And True Grit is no exception.
This film is a grand example of a film done right. It does not rely on gimmicks or even style, but solid characters and a simple, understandable and compelling plot. 14-year old Mattie Ross (excellently played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) is dead set on avenging the cold-blooded death of her father, robbed and shot during a robbery. She seeks the assistance of the town’s local Marshall, one that is recommended to her to have the most “true grit”—Rooster Cogburn, played to perfection by the inimitable Jeff Bridges. Together, they set out on a journey through Indian territory to find and bring to justice the killer, Tom Chaney, played memorably and all-too-briefly by Josh Brolin. Since Chaney is wanted in several states for several crimes, they come across a Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon, who also wants to bring Chaney in, so he joins them on their trek.
I’ve just told you the whole movie in a couple of sentences. But it doesn’t tell you anything. The experience of True Grit is the experience of getting to know these characters, of engaging in their quest and being compelled by their circumstances. Like any good story, the real payoff is not the end, it’s the getting there.
Steinfeld, Bridges and Damon are perfectly blended parts of a character cocktail that could only be served by the Coens. All three of them are excellent and they play off each other with genuine skill. It’s unusual in a Western to have the dialogue outclass the scenery, but the Coens are able to do it, crafting Sorkin-esque banter that is witty and poignant—and always entertaining.
Filmed entirely on location in Texas, True Grit is also something special to look at. The wide vistas and rocky ridges are their own characters here, and it is all filmed with usual flair by the Coens’ long-time cinematographer Roger Deakins. While not as dark and forbidding as No Country For Old Men, True Grit’s photography is up to Deakins’ usual standards and provides a stellar backdrop for this engaging adventure.
Overall, True Grit is a solid piece of filmmaking. The Coens may have muted their signature wackiness and/or darkness in this film, but it doesn’t lack any of their usual charm, skill or cinematic style. In any year, this film would stand out in the crowd. In this year, it is one of the best. Leave it to the Coens to rescue 2010 from the trash heap.