Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Joel and Ethan Coen, co-directors, producers and writers
Based on the novel by Charles Portis
Carter Burwell, music
Roger Deakins, cinematography
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Matt Damon (Texas Ranger La Boeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (“Lucky” Ned Pepper)
Three years ago, the Coen Brothers modernized the Western with their acclaimed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Now they’ve eloquently restored the genre to its historic roots in the latter half of the 19th century in True Grit. Inspired once again by a classic American novel, the Coens have given the underrated Charles Portis his due as a writer of improbably beautiful dialogue. In place of McCarthy’s menacing minimalism, they’ve captured Portis’ eloquent baroque English, a language filled with rhetorical flourishes and Biblical references that are almost comically at odds with the violence and near-anarchy of the West depicted in both the book and film.
The Coen Brothers are true appreciators of “the talkies.” Their films have traversed the linguistic terrain from the intense Hammett-styled Miller’s Crossing to the Tom Robbins’ hippie cadences of The Big Lebowski to the Ben Hecht-like mannerisms of The Hudsucker Proxy. What other writers would have their protagonist dismiss someone for indulging in “braggadocio”? Most scenarists would be hard pressed to use “braggart” in a sentence; even “brag” might be beyond some of them.
The character using “braggadocio” correctly in True Grit is a feisty but quite proper young lady named Mattie Ross. Played with pure resolute steadfastness by Coen discovery Hailee Steinfeld, Mattie is a 14-year-old girl obsessed with avenging her father’s murder by a reprobate, Tom Chaney. Knowing that Chaney has fled to “Indian country” (present day Oklahoma), Mattie hires a hard-drinking, sharp-shooting U.S. Marshall, “Rooster” Cogburn to bring Chaney to justice, dead or alive–but preferably dead. Aiding Mattie and Rooster–except when he’s occasionally acting at cross-purposes to them—is a young Texas Ranger, a braggart calling himself “le beef” though his name is actually the more feminine “La Boeuf.”
The Coens evoke Mattie’s quest without irony. They also depict the Western without their usual contemporary post-modern touches. True Grit, like No Country for Old Men, is a film unshorn of tricks. When Mattie rides her new horse Little Blackie outside its old corral, the music of the Coens’ favourite composer Carter Burwell swells in triumph much like Dimitri Tiomkin’s or Alex North’s did in the Western’s golden age in the Fifties. And when Cogburn relentlessly drives Blackie all night on the pony’s last ride, bringing the snake-venom poisoned Mattie back to a doctor, the grizzled cowboy and the stricken girl are framed as elegantly under the stars of the Western sky as in a painting by Charles Russell.
The terrific cinematography of Roger Deakins, Carter Burwell’s music and his scoring of old Protestant hymns like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” add depth and texture to a note-perfect ensemble cast led by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and the astonishingly gifted Ms. Steinfeld. Bridges in particular is brilliant–his Rooster Cogburn is a damaged old Confederate soldier stripped of much of his humanity but still able to respond to a courageous young woman. He’s not Bad Blake for a change, nor is he the Dude or the Duke.
Choosing not to emulate John Wayne’s comic portrayal of Rooster, which won the Duke his only Oscar, Bridges has created a vivid character out of Cogburn: a drunken shadow of a man who can still rise to greatness when he’s called upon to do so. Treating such characters as Cogburn and Mattie Ross with dignity and the Western with respect may not be the best way to garner awards at this year’s Oscars but this is one critic who would like to shout a mighty huzzah for what the Coen Brothers have wrought. To my mind, True Grit is the best American film of the year–even if it doesn’t win the Oscar later this winter.