One could argue that the Coen brothers are essentially retelling the same story in every film they make. A crime that gets out of hand has been the basis of everything from “Fargo” to “No Country for Old Men” yet whether they have it play out in snow-covered North Dakota or turn-of-the-century Utah, the pair continue to find new ways to portray it and more often than not land themselves praise and plaudits from critics, audiences and the Academy alike. To follow up “A Serious Man,” Joel and Ethan turned to Charles Portis’ novel of the same name, a tale that had previously been adapted into one of John Wayne’s most enduring roles. However, nails have long been put into the genre of the classic western leaving breathing space only for contemplative reflections or portrayals of harsh and unforgiving worlds. Naturally, the Coens’ “True Grit” falls into this latter category: It’s a western with all the idealised gloss chipped away, presenting the wild west as it truly must have been – wild.
When her father is murdered, fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (new discovery Hailee Steinfeld) hires U.S. marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to bring in the killer, a fierce criminal by the name of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). In order to see the task through and to prevent the Marshall from simply disappearing with her money, the young girl insists on accompanying Cogburn. Also looking for Chaney is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is portrayed to be the pole opposite of Cogburn, namely the heroic cowboy of old, smooth talking and handsome. Bridges on the other hand is cruel and untamed, taken by old age and drink, after “Crazy Heart,” a role that is tailored for the actor. Rambling and grunting in the most indistinct of southern accents he garbles throughout the film proving quite difficult to understand. It’s a winning performance but even that is an understatement: “True Grit’s” entire cast excel, led by Steinfeld who can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with acting greats like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Her performance is the heart and soul but also the identity of the entire film as the story is told through her eyes. Her innocence clearly at odds with that of her male companions, Mattie Ross must quickly learn the ways of an unforgiving society. It’s a career-making role as much as Cogburn is a career-defining one for Jeff Bridges.
Plot-wise, “True Grit” is actually very, very simple but the means of its telling is masterful, the Coens are almost unmatched in Hollywood today. It’s as highly poetic a tale as it is philosophical in nature, told with their usual dose of dark humour within dialogue that is pitch perfect. The pacing is slow but never laborious, the audience allowed the time to take in the world and its looks. “Set pieces” like an early execution scene and the final shoot-out come as stabs of gruesome violence into a world that is filled with tension but at the same time very still. Coen regular, cinematographer Roger Deakins once again proves his worth for capturing the beautiful yet always harsh landscapes. Best seen on as big a screen as possible to fully appreciate the filmmaking craft, the film is a visual heaven to the nth degree. Somehow the cinematography and production design does hark back to the glory days of westerns and perhaps this betrays the Coens’ vision for the film: To tell a traditional western story but how it would actually have happened rather than how Hollywood would have portrayed it in the past. And in this they are of course much truer to Portis’ novel than the John Wayne version could ever have been. Love or hate (some people do) the Coen brothers, their ability to produce this kind of film after twenty years at the top of their game is wondrous.
Originally “True Grit” was not to feature any original music. However, after some deliberation with their composer of choice Carter Burwell, the Coens decided to use a hybrid approach. This involved the use of several old hymns that were adapted and arranged by Burwell into his own original score. It’s a very accomplished blend and the result far superior to Clint Mansell’s similar situation on “Black Swan.” Mattie’s religious upbringing is represented through “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” which becomes her signature and the film’s. The theme is performed with remarkable variation on piano and with full orchestra. For this film, Burwell has abandoned many of his experimental tendencies, making “True Grit” one of his most enjoyable scores ever. It’s a conservative approach but that is exactly what the film asks. Perhaps not technically “original” the score is immensely enjoyable both in the film and on album as well.
“True Grit” turned out to be the biggest loser on Oscar night with ten nominations an no wins, a fate it did not deserve. After the Coens swept away big with “No Country For Old Men,” it was unlikely that they would do it again. However, taking the film purely on its own merits, it is in fact superior to the eventual winner, a tale beautifully told in every way. It comes with the highest rating and highly recommended.
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