Ah, the Western. Never has a film genre been so close to death. Of course, there have been a few great Westerns recently but, for a genre that was a Hollywood staple in the past century, the Western genre as a whole is barely surviving. Fortunately, it has earned a few more blips on its heartbeat monitor, thanks to none other than Joel and Ethan Coen.
An adaptation of Charles Portis’ classic Western novel (and not a remake of the 1969 film), “True Grit” never disappoints. The best thing about the Coen brothers’ latest endeavor is that, over the film’s running time of 110 minutes, the nostalgia for the good ol’ days of the Western is finally fulfilled.
A quote from Proverbs 28:1 opens the film: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth,” which establishes the tone. It’s interesting to note that the Coens leave off the second part of the quote: “but the righteous are bold as a lion.” However, it becomes clear that the film itself personifies the rest of that verse, for “True Grit” is a story about retribution and valor.
Set in the 1870s, the film follows 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who travels to Fort Smith, Arkansas to avenge the death of her father, who was shot in cold blood by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Hearing that the murderer has joined a gang of outlaws led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), she inquires about hiring a U.S. Marshal to bring Chaney to justice.
She subsequently hires drunken, one-eyed and trigger-happy Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) upon learning that he is the most merciless. She sets out with him — over his objections — to pursue Chaney, who has fled with the gang deep into Indian Territory. She is determined to find him before Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) catches him and brings him to Texas for the murder of a senator.
Those who have read Portis’ novel will find themselves quite comfortable when watching the film. Though the Coens do make some relatively major changes, they ultimately help develop the relationship between Mattie and Cogburn, which is the story’s focus.
Indeed, viewers who aren’t very familiar with the novel will be surprised to see that the hunt for Chaney takes a backseat. With that being said, “True Grit” comes close to being a dialogue-driven character study, albeit a delightful one. This relationship between the two lead characters is what steers the story.
What’s most enjoyable about this bond is how Mattie and Cogburn eventually see and treat each other as equals, despite their age gap and glaring personality differences. As they journey together to find Chaney, it’s truly fascinating to see how this relationship develops.
Avowed fans of the Coen brothers know that the directing duo have a knack for writing deadpan dialogue and creating quirky characters, and “True Grit” is no exception. In fact, there are often moments when the film almost crosses into the territory of a black comedy.
Cinephiles who particularly love Westerns won’t be disappointed. The film features the Western’s general plotline: a crime is committed, a pursuit commences, a showdown occurs and, finally, justice is served. Sure, it’s more dialogue-heavy than most other films of the same genre, but the feel of the Western is still there.
Upon first look at the cast, one would think that the best performances belong to Bridges or Damon. Not so. Remarkably, Steinfeld, who has never acted in a feature film before, absolutely steals the show. Not only is she charming as Mattie, she also exhibits some “grit” of her own, as seen when she dominates every scene that she shares with the actors. “True Grit” deservingly and rightfully belongs to her.
As Cogburn (the very same role that won John Wayne his Oscar in the 1969 version), Bridges is hilarious and impressive. While he does gargle and gurgle most of his lines, which makes them difficult to comprehend but is fitting to the character, he displays a wide range of personality and seems to be having some fun here.
Damon’s presence in a Western makes him stick out at first, but he makes a noticeable effort and is best when communicating the pompous and deeply sensitive nature of LaBoeuf.
Both Brolin and an excellent Pepper are in the film for no more than 15 minutes apiece, but they manage to express the key natures of their characters — wimpy yet threatening for Chaney, and charismatic yet heartless for Pepper.
In addition to its superb cast, “True Grit” boasts some exemplary technical achievements. Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ photography and composer Carter Burwell’s score (both of whom are regular collaborators with the Coens) must be singled out simply because they demonstrate the grandeur and spirit of the Western.
Deakins moves the camera slowly to capture the breathtaking magnificence and scale of the landscapes and to establish mood and tone with splendid chiaroscuro lighting choices. When coupled with the production design’s visually striking color tones, any frame that he films can make a spectacular still photograph.
Anyone who has ever listened to the classic Western music by Ennio Morricone and Elmer Bernstein can attest that there’s a fun and wild spirit being articulated in those notes. Such is the case for Burwell’s work in “True Grit.” His energetic score, based mostly on church hymns from the respective time period, complement the great adventure that Mattie embarks on.
The only occasionally disappointing aspect about the film concerns its editing, especially the transitions from scene to scene after a considerable amount of time has progressed in between. What results from such instances, which occur several times throughout, is a rather jarring and uncomfortable effect.
Several moviegoers may be turned off by the film’s heavy reliance on dialogue and some fans of the Coens may be dissatisfied with its straightforward narrative. However, “True Grit” is a near-perfect film that is bolstered by a wonderfully told story, strong performances, and gorgeous design, look and sound — all of which reflect the great classic Western films.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5