Review: True Grit

From the opening frames until the closing credits, Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Brothers’ True Grit is built around and continues to return to the traditional gospel hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. Perhaps it’s a reference to Night of the Hunter, a film that can clearly be counted among the major influences on the Coens’ uniquely weird sense of style and tone. Perhaps the lyrics draw attention to one of the major themes the Coens were trying to establish in the film.

Personally, I take it as a sign of a spiritual awakening for Joel and Ethan Coen, two great American filmmakers who seem to have lost their voice in the past decade. Since 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coen Brothers have struggled to strike the same clear notes that made their first decade and a half of work so remarkable and strikingly memorable.

Some films like Intolerable Cruelty and A Serious Man displayed some of the energy and snappy writing that made the Coens’ early work great but neither film ever seemed to put it together into a consistent, satisfying experience. No Country For Old Men won the brothers their first Best Picture Oscar but Coen fans will tell you the film, while good, was completely devoid of the signature style and voice of the Coen Brothers. Meanwhile other 21st Century efforts by the brothers, like The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading, range from misfires to outright disasters as the brothers wandered through a puzzlingly unenjoyable dark comedy phase.

But as we arrive in a new decade, the Coens take on a project unlike anything else they’ve ever done in their careers, in a way. It’s a remake of a classic film that the Coens are simply putting their own spin on. Many questioned why the Coens would go this route rather than coming up with their own original story like they’ve done in every other film they’ve ever made. While the Coens’ motivations are unclear, what is clear is that by freeing themselves of the responsibility of creating the plot and the characters that will live it out, the filmmakers appear to have given themselves the time to focus on the things about the film that would make it their own: the visual style (aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins), the tone, and the details of the actors’ performances.

That narrowed focus pays off brilliantly in True Grit and the result is a film that never feels lost, never shifts its focus and recaptures the pitch-perfect voice that the Coens have been missing since The Big Lebowski.

The story’s structure obviously creates the perfect showcase for the three lead performances and all three actors step up to the challenge. Jeff Bridges continues his recent string of nuanced and compelling performances with a brilliant turn as Rooster Cogburn, playing the character as a little more pathetic, a little darker than John Wayne did in his Oscar-winning performance while Hailee Steinfeld bursts onto the scene with the perfect counterpoint to Bridges’ grumbly, cantankerous anti-hero. As a heroine, Mattie Ross has the potential to be annoyingly precocious and cutesy but Steinfeld maintains the sense of enthusiastic independence the character needs while never making it feel like a novelty. She’s simply a young woman mature beyond her years, probably something not all that uncommon in the late 19th Century considering the demands often placed on children living on the American frontier. Early in the film, Steinfeld displays the perfect balance the role requires when she engages a local shopkeeper in an epic bartering session that stands toe-to-toe with any piece of dialog the Coens have ever penned.

Matt Damon’s performance, as brilliantly comedic as it is, likely won’t receive the attention it deserves thanks to the two other spectacular lead performances but Damon once again shows that even in a supporting role, with no opportunities for emotional spectacle, he never takes a scene off. Perhaps the most delicately balanced scene in the film features Damon’s Texas ranger LeBoeuf dropping his guard to show sincere respect and perhaps a little affection for Mattie.

And of course, the movie is peppered with the kind of fascinating, weird and endlessly intriguing bit performances that have always been a trademark of the Coen Brothers, including an almost politely vicious baddie played by Barry Pepper, a half-witted drifter played by Josh Brolin and a hilariously odd boarding house landlady played by Candyce Hinkel.

For the first time in nearly 10 years, the Coens seem joyous in their filmmaking. They seem to finally be at peace with simply telling a story and allowing their fantastically fun characters to react to that story in the elegantly absurd language of Coen dialog. They aren’t worried about exposing their audience as foolishly optimistic by shocking us with cynical and dark plot twists nor are they as quick to revel in the misery of their flawed characters. This is simply the Coen Brothers making a movie that exists primarily to be a pure, engrossing cinematic experience.

Rejoice, film lovers, for the Coens were lost but now are found.