True Grit: More True Great Work By The Coens And Bridges
It’s always difficult reviewing a Coen Brothers film, because they do so many things right. I struggled over how to begin this review. Should I discuss the Coens’ continued exploration of the principles of manhood? Should I discuss the performances– from Bridges, the best actor of his generation, and Steinfeld, who gives maybe the best child performance since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense? Should I discuss the cinematography, and how it’s the most odious crime in the world that Roger Deakins has yet to win an Academy Award? Should I discuss how the Coens are in general the best living filmmakers, and every new film they produce continues to reinforce that notion? You see my dilemma: when there’s so many interesting and great things in a film like True Grit, how does one find a natural starting point?
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has a mission: Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) gunned down her father in cold blood, and she is determined to see that the favor is returned. She is looking for a US Marshal, a man with “true grit.” She’s told the most ruthless is Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man she first meets testifying for a trial in which he shot a bunch of people he was hunting down. He’s a shoot-first, ask-questions-later man, a fat drunk who lives by a strict code. In addition to Cogburn, Ross brings along LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger with frills and spurs who has been hunting Chaney for a murder he committed in Texas but has been unable to find him so far. The three travel together into Native American country, looking for Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang, since Tom Chaney is most likely to be with them. Along the way, they quarrel, split up occasionally, and the differences between Cogburn and LaBoeuf’s styles are apparent. Meanwhile, they encounter various fringe members of Pepper’s gang, getting ever closer to their goal– and time is of the essence, since once the trail goes cold, there will be no finding Chaney.
The Coens are master storytellers, simple and plain. Several scenes from this film are among the best scenes of the year– and it feels like every time they create a new film, it contains these model scenes of perfection. Take our introduction to Maddie, as she negotiates with a banker about selling back to him some ponies her father bought. It doesn’t sound exciting, but her determination and refusal to let a professional adult take advantage of her makes it as thrilling as anything in Inception to watch. A great script with exceptional dialogue is so exceedingly rare that there isn’t a single special effect that parallels. When movies with revolutionary effects grow dated and lame, the films with great scripts survive. Take our introduction to Cogburn, with him on trial testifying. Bridges’ growling voice, the cinematography establishing him as this deity among men, the cutting to Steinfeld’s reactions, and the dialogue which perfectly balances facts of brutal violence with razor-sharp wit– these are the scenes that linger in the mind when the showdown in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has faded from memory.
They also manage to continue to balance storytelling with a natural delivery of themes. LaBoeuf works hard, it’s true, but he’s never been able to find Chaney. He obviously wants to fill the role of the traditional Old West cowboy, slinging guns, toting the spurs and frilly cowhide outfits. However, Ross immediately sees through him. He’s obviously not that good, since he hasn’t seen Chaney but once, and now he has to rely on Cogburn for help to get to him. As the film moves forward, we see more and more examples that, despite LaBoeuf’s demeanor, he doesn’t have “true grit”– he merely plays the part. Cogburn may be fat and perpetually drunk, but he knows what to do. He lives by a code, he’s stubborn as a mule, and he will get his man. He tells a story about he rode straight towards an entire gang, reins in teeth, with guns in both hands– and lived. LaBoeuf is the type of guy who prefers shooting at a gang from far away. This isn’t the true grit, the real manhood. It’s not about dressing up and pretending to be a tough guy, it’s about actually being tough. Sleeping in a hammock passed out in long johns might make you cartoonish at first, but what do you do when it’s time to stand up and do something impossible for what’s right? Cogburn’s final appearance in the film is classic, a moment that shows true grit make you more than a man– you’re capable of legendary feats.
And Jeff Bridges was born to play this role. I could rave about Matt Damon, making a part that could easily fall through the cracks very individual, and Hailee Steinfeld, giving a humdinger of a first performance, showing honesty and determination that few adult actors can manage. Steinfeld provides the eyes we see the film through, and she has zero of the precociousness or affectations most child actors suffer from– I hope she wins the Oscar, and she’s very high if not at the top of my Supporting Actress list (in a weaker field this year, she has a shot). But Bridges captures our imagination from the second we hear that voice. It’s the perfect balance for what he’s going for vocally– intelligible enough but incredibly grizzled and gravelly. He manages to be scary, tough, hilarious, charming, with hints of damage and pain. Between Crazy Heart and True Grit, he’s cemented his spot as the best actor of his generation. It’s only right that he creates another iconic character for the Coens, who simply put can’t be topped. I dare you to name a director with more classic scenes in the past two decades. Even their worst film, The Ladykillers, is interesting and funny, better than 90% of Hollywood directors’ output. Every moment in the film soars. At the end, we see the death of the Old West as we know it, as men who used to be like Cogburn give way to the frills and spurs that pretend to capture the grit and manhood of the days of old. Most filmmakers merely attempt to capture past glories of previous productions, or they pretend to have ever been good in the first place. The Coens made several of the best films of the 80s and 90s, and yet they keep getting better. No frills and spurs for them– they stick to the principles of great storytelling.