Going to film school ensures two things: difficulty finding gainful employment and the viewing of a bunch of Westerns. While only Joel Coen attended film school, True Grit proves that both brothers have seen a few. The Coen brother’s True Grit, the second adaptation of the Charles Portis novel of the same name, is most surprising in how little it resembles a typical Coen brothers’ film. And that’s not a bad thing.
Over the past 25 years, the Coen’s have built a remarkable body of work. The wit and irony of a Coen brother’s script, their deftness with both shot and cut, and the ability to get the most out of their stable of players makes nearly every film a classic. All those talents are presented in True Grit, and while it may be a classic, its place in the Coen oevre is a curious one.
True Grit follows the journey of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, in her big screen debut) as she pursues her father’s killer. The headstrong 14-year-old is joined by the indefatigable, if drunk, U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and a through and through Texan, Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). This motley crew is very Coenesque. So is the story: a tale of revenge and retribution is nothing new for the Coens, either. In fact, their 2007 Best Picture winner, No Country for Old Men, is essentially a neo-Western, albeit with Cormac McCarthy’s noirish depravity.
But True Grit is best when the Coen’s use their talents in service of genre, and not the other way around. The alternating picturesque beauty and staggering desolation, the black and white depiction of good and evil, and the titular trait in the characters makes this a pure American Western.
For better or worse, Westerns will forever be associated with John Wayne. Jeff Bridges, in the role Wayne won an Oscar for, can’t try to out-Duke the Duke, so he makes Rooster Cogburn his own. Grimier and sloppier than Wayne ever would be on film, Bridges’ Cogburn is a high-functioning alcoholic, prone to telling tales like any barroom drunk. But he gets the job done, even if a few scumbags have to die as he pursues his quarry. Damon, in a supporting role, outshines Glen “Rhinestone Cowboy” Campbell, who had the role in 1969. Damon’s LaBoeuf is Cogburn’s straightman, a no-nonsense (except in dress) lawman, “Don’t Mess with Texas” 100 years early.
While Cogburn and LaBoeuf loom large, this is Mattie Ross’s story, and Hailee Steinfeld’s film. Actually playing her own age (as opposed to Kim Darby, who played Mattie while in her early 20s), the young actress is a force, embodying the single-minded determination that the role requires. This is a teen girl holding her own on the frontier, and it’s totally believable, thanks to Steinfeld’s performance. Whether outsmarting a local businessman or bargaining with captives and captors, Mattie Ross has ice water in her veins.
The takeaway I had after viewing True Grit was “unflinching.” From the blatant racism of the 19th century to the gruesome violence of the lawless West, the Coen’s never shy away from the reality of their source material. Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, because it is. It’s the stark contrast between the repartee and the retribution that makes True Grit a pure Western that only the Coen brothers could make.