How the west was fun – True Grit review

True Grit – Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Rated M. Originally published January 18, 2011. By Simon Miraudo.

Standard Coen Brothers Review Template: [Insert movie title] is the latest opus from the supremely talented writer/director/producer/editor duo. They reach into the annals of movie history to toy with the styles and conventions of a traditional [insert genre], and once again tell the parable of a man who unlawfully comes into some money, and is cosmically punished for his crimes. Carter Burwell’s score and Roger Deakins’ cinematography are peerless, and the performances are brilliant across the board. But best of all are the glimpses of the Coens’ finger marks throughout proceedings; they’re like two wickedly funny deities who have crafted a cruel world in which everyone has a whip-fast sense of humour. It’s enough to make the doomed fates of even their most honourable characters palatable. [Restate movie title] is brilliant.

Reviewing the films of Joel and Ethan Coen is getting a little boring, even if the movies themselves never do. I’ll let that opening paragraph act as a basic overview for anyone who was already convinced to see True Grit on the basis of it being directed by the Coens. Over the course of three decades, they’ve given us fifteen pictures. In my opinion, thirteen are brilliant, and two (The Hudsucker Proxy and The Ladykillers) are just O.K. Still, that’s one hell of a batting average. With their impressive filmography they have established themselves as the auteurs of choice for movie geeks and general audiences alike; there is no genre they are yet to conquer, no accolade they are yet to receive. Of their fifteen films, only three have been adapted from books (excluding the influence of The Book of Job on A Serious Man). O Brother Where Art Thou riffed on Homer’s Odyssey, No Country for Old Men was based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, and their latest, True Grit, is adapted from Charles Portis’ 1968 tome (itself made into a movie by Henry Hathaway in 1969). Needless to say, their standards are high when it comes to picking an author worthy of their Midas touch.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I’ve not read Portis’ novel, nor have I seen the film adaptation for which John Wayne received an Oscar as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. I understand that the Coens take differs from the film and remains truer to the novel by returning the focus to that of fifteen-year-old Mattie Ross (a spectacularly confident Hailee Steinfeld). Young Mattie is on the hunt for an alcoholic crim named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who needlessly shot and killed her daddy over a minor dispute. She recruits drunken Cogburn (a particularly mumbly, but still engaging Jeff Bridges) to help her track him down. He’s reluctant, but intrigued by the prospect of claiming the bounty on Chaney’s head (and the subsequent whisky that bounty could buy). Rooster breaks an early promise to Mattie by heading off without her, and instead with a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon) also hot on Chaney’s trail. Mattie tracks them down, and seeks to prove that she has the necessary gumption to find, and ultimately kill, her father’s murderer.

But let’s look at this from the perspective of Chaney, who is absent for much of the film. A drunk and an unrepentant criminal for sure, but all he wanted was a bit of cash to play cards and score some booze. In a state of inebriation, he carelessly murders Ross Sr. That action sets him on ‘The Coen Path’; a path down which he will be relentlessly pursued and made to pay for his sins, like other money-hungry Coen characters before him (see: Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man). No one escapes the wrath of Joel and Ethan Coen. I’m surprised one hasn’t offed the other in a state of frenzied fratricide after some sort of romantic or financial misunderstanding.

Despite the oft-repeated Biblical overtones of vengeance and righteousness, True Grit is nowhere near as personal as their previous film, A Serious Man, which fully delved into the brothers’ Judaism and their sense of place in the world. True Grit also avoids the sense of nihilistic chaos of the Wild West that pervaded their previous foray into the western genre, No Country for Old Men. Although it slides perfectly into their oeuvre, and restates many of their themes, True Grit is a far simpler and straighter film than anything the duo have done before. Only filmmakers with as impressive a back catalogue and supreme a talent as the Coen brothers could relax and produce a film as “simple and straight” as True Grit and have it still be a thrilling, haunting, hilarious, minor-masterpiece.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

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