True Grit: A Review

True Grit – Dir: Joel & Ethan Coen; *ing: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin

Just when you think you have the Coen Bros. pegged as filmmakers/ storytellers, they blow a raspberry in your face by pulling off something entirely unexpected and contrary to what you’d cleverly (in a cringingly self-congratulatory patting-yourself-on-the-back way) defined as their trademark style. And if you based that definition relying on their signature works, it just needs to be put in a pipe and smoked because True Grit puts aside the quirkiness of Fargo, the flakiness of The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man, even the wry edge of their Oscar winner No Country for Old Men. Instead, their latest work is a straightforward, though incredibly lyrical paean to the Old West, as well as the old Western, both as they might’ve been and as we might imagine them to be; where coffins are used in place of sleeping bags, spectators applaud at the climax of a public hanging, and a 14 year-old girl hires a bounty hunter to track down her father’s killer – a past not so much revisited as re-imagined.

Re-imagining is also the term that comes to mind when considering that the story has been filmed before, in 1969 to be precise, with the legendary John Wayne giving possibly his most iconic performance in a career overflowing with iconic performances, as the pivotal character of Marshall Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, a hard-drinking, hard-living, eye-patch wearing lawman with a take-no-prisoners policy. But the Coens’ version avoids using its predecessor as a template, instead going back to the 1968 Charles Portis-penned source novel, itself an iconic piece of post-War American literature.  It is a wise decision, for while the earlier film is doubtless an elegant cinematic work, the new one goes further by exploring darker territory, particularly with the addition of a post-climactic epilogue which brings into focus the toll violence takes on those who experience it – from either side.

Here, Jeff Bridges plays the gruff one-eyed Cogburn, in whom teenaged toughie Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) sees one possessed, like herself, of ‘true grit’, and who reluctantly agrees to help her find Tom Chaney (Brolin) the man who murdered her father in cold blood. And last year’s Best Actor Oscar winner pulls off a rare Hollywood feat: re-defining (and re-iconising) an already iconic/ archetypal character. Like the late Heath Ledger did with the Joker in The Dark Knight, Bridges makes Cogburn completely his own, and we don’t even think of Wayne while watching him. As a matter of fact, we don’t even think of Bridges while watching him; Clu, Starman, the Dude, even Bad Blake from Crazy Heart, are so far removed from his interpretation here that you don’t even notice it’s the same guy – it is really an era of second coming for the actor, although, the question is, when did he ever even go away? He’s been right there all along.

There is tremendous support from the rest of the cast: Damon as prickly Texan Ranger LaBeouf, and Brolin as the ruthless villain of the piece. Special mention must go to newcomer Steinfeld who resists any and all urges to add a ‘cuteness’ quotient to Mattie that the script also takes pains to avoid, and she proves a great foil to Bridges, squaring off note for note. Add the Coens’ wonderfully sharp dialogue and Roger Deakins’ breathtaking cinematography to the mix, and you have one helluva tasty country pie to dig into.

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