Whatís most surprising watching the Coenís latest triumph unfold is simply how relatively earnest and heartfelt TRUE GRIT
is. Itís a note that they havenít used much of in their cinematic history and it easily helps the movie carve out a true niche in their filmography.
has, of course, been filmed before with John Wayne in one of his most iconic roles as Rooster Cogburn, fat, one eyed, drunken marshal with ďtrue grit.Ē The earlier film boasts fine cinematography, some choice supporting turns, and a fine action climax, but itís undone to a minor extent by the sub par turns by Kim Darby and Glen Campbell. While the Coensí havenít notably reworked the plot, itís still all about Mattie Ross hiring Rooster Cogburn to bring in the fugitive Tom Chaney who killer her father -- or even much of the dialogue -- itís clear that they returned to the novel as the source of their screenplay, particularly with a framing sequence thatís totally absent from the earlier version. And in returning to the novel, theyíve remembered that the true lead character is 14 year old Mattie Ross.
Itís with Mattie Ross that the Coensí have struck pay dirt and truly created a movie superior to the earlier version. Hailee Steinfeld is a flat out revelation in her role. Her Mattie Ross is a perfect fit for the Coens, sheís not your typical child with an implacable will to deal with, especially when sheís involved in business, but sheís still a 14 year old girl through and through, and often naÔve about the ways of the world. Which becomes especially relevant as much of the film is removed from civilization and in the wilds of ďIndian CountryĒ where she has to interact with experienced actors all around her. And in her combination of toughness, hard headedness, and girlishness. For the most part sheís surrounded by two men competing for the title of alpha male and yet she manages to make the deepest impression.
Which isnít to knock the contributions of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon at all. Itís a maximum compliment that Steinfeld outshines two pros delivering terrific performances themselves. Bridgesí Rooster Cogburn is less an icon and more a flawed human being in this version. Still full of bluster and still too fond of drink, he forms a relationship with Mattie Ross thatís actually quite touching. As they travel together, he becomes something of a surrogate father and she becomes the daughter he never had. As he tells her stories about his life, you get the sense heís been keeping it bottled up for a long time and the two of them form a strong bond. And that bond stirs emotions that the Coensí generally donít touch upon. If thereís ever a movie that fathers and daughters can bond over, this is it. Itís an astonishing element considering that the words ďheartwarmingĒ and ďearnestĒ arenít words you associate with the Coens.
Matt Damon completes the trio as Texas Ranger LaBoef. His character would probably describe himself as STALWART TEXAS RANGER in all capitals. Heís full of braggadocio and a tongue that wonít stop, but thereís just enough hint of self-doubt over his failure to have captured Tom Chaney in the past that Mattieís taunts seem to hurt. His relationship with Mattie isnít quite as tight as Roosterís, but it takes several twists and turns as well. And one of the running jokes of the film is how much punishment he takes, while still keeping on. Itís a fine performance by Damon, physically and verbally.
The dialogue of TRUE GRIT is one of the distinctive elements that must have appealed to the Coens. Itís full of a grandiloquence thatís uncommon in movies. Even in movies written by the Coens who are no strangers to distinctive dialogue. And while it could have come across as effective, the actors are directed in such a way that it just seems the way these people talk. And, as expected from the Coens, the talking is performed by a deep and more than capable cast of supporting characters that are all distinct.
Thereís a lot of classical western cinematography by Roger Deakins in the film. None of it is particularly flashy in the way he moves the camera, but that tends to give it a classical charm. And every frame is exquisitely composed. There are images after images of these characters, alone, paired, or in a trio, set forth in a massive space so as to underline how alone they are in the world. The soundtrack is spare and naturalistic, using old fashioned spirituals to add to the score by Carter Burwell. The spirituals arenít as catchy as the soundtrack to O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, but they still strike a strong emotional chord.
I like to leaven a review with a little bit of criticism just as a check to what may seem to be hyperbole, but honestly I canít. TRUE GRIT is a flat out masterpiece and displays an unexpected side of the Coens. Itís by turns funny, exciting, and emotional, gorgeously photographed, well acted, and displays an uncommon level of craft. Itís an instant classic that can stand beside the giants of the genre.