At some point over the Thanksgiving holiday of 2010, as my family waited impatiently in the living room for the turkey to roast, the TV spot for "True Grit" came on.
"Looks interesting." someone said. (It wasn't me.)
"Yeah.. but it's by the Coen Brothers!" my father blurted out in disgust.
Knowing my dad, this unprovoked burst of poorly articulated grumpiness didn't faze me. Nor did I feel the need to counter (my dad couldn't name three films by the Coens if his second helping of pumpkin pie depended on it.) Anyway, I had a pretty good idea why he felt compelled to voice his skepticism. He seemed to think a pair of artier-than-thou writer/directors in their $500 penny loafers were out to track fresh mud all over the hallowed grounds of his cinematic hero, one John "Duke" Wayne. And THAT he simply could not stand for.
It's doubtful that too many would share his vague angst, though. After all, who could think of a more audience-friendly replacement for Wayne's Rooster Cogburn than Jeff Bridges? Having long ago endeared himself to generations of movie fans, last year Bridges cleared the final hurdle to American film immortality, successfully courting the don't-rock-the-boat crowd and snaring an Oscar for his role in "Crazy Heart." That film played by the Academy rules, alright, and for the most part "True Grit" does as well. As usual, however, the Coens ennoble the film with the formidable strengths of their direction and writing, and with their choice of collaborators.
In "True Grit," the Coens have everything and nothing up their sleeve. The film is a tale of man-hunting in the Old West. Young Mattie Ross (played with convincing, plucky bravado by Hailee Steinfeld,) has lost her father at the hands of a bandit named Tom Chaney. She recruits Bridge's drunken Marshall Cogburn to find Chaney and bring him to justice. Matt Damon's LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, completes the posse. Chaney is wanted in Texas, too, and LaBoeuf is out to see him caught as well.
"True Grit" is more spared-down than any western in recent memory. There are a few gunfights, and a chase or two, but more often the Coens are content to lean on their strengths, filling the screen with oddball characters and darkly funny encounters. This lends a welcome tone of playfulness to a story that might otherwise have been an austere guilt-and-redemption-fest, like John Ford's "The Searchers." Cogburn and Company are out for blood alright, but they're not filled with bloodlust.
It’s a canny little film--It feels small and insular, even as it unfolds against vast western landscapes. It is frequently hilarious, occasionally violent, and it doesn't hit any wrong notes. If it has anything bigger on its mind, however, it's not giving it away. But if you’re desperate for some kind of deeper meaning, it's likely right there in the title. Cogburn, in the employ of the 14-year-old Hattie, and Damon's LaBoeuf, all are working for what is clearly the right cause, and each has a separate burden to bear. But the ways in which their various axes do and don't get ground may have something to say about revenge and redemption.
There's no denying that, on first viewing, "True Grit" has a distinct air of slightness to it. Coens diehards will probably like it, not love it, if they're being honest with themselves. But mostly, "True Grit" is a satisfyingly tasty meat-and-potatoes affair. The Coens, like their contemporary Steven Soderbergh, have proven themselves expert craftsmen, able to churn out well-crafted, often excellent work even in the employ of the major studios. Their well-realized hybrids of brilliance and accessibility have endeared them to a diverse crowd of film-goers, and their careers are all the better for it.
Roger Deakins is a legend in his time, incapable of lensing an uninteresting shot. The music, by frequent collaborator Carter Burwell, is occasionally cloying but mostly standard issue. None of the actors are in particularly unmapped territory, excepting possibly Bridges, whose vocal gymnastics in gargling out Cogburn's guttural expectorations are as impressive as they are entertaining. Coens fans will ultimately return first for the screenplay, packed to the brim (as usual) with dazzling and arcane yokel-isms.
Would my dad actually hate "True Grit?" It's possible. The dialogue is a far cry from John Wayne's slow-as-molasses drawl, and he'd probably have a hard time keeping up. Apart from that, however, the structure is neat and tidy, the film closes with actual closure (he hates those damn indecisive endings,) and the Coens don't directly impose anything on the viewer that they might not want to deal with.
"True Grit" is product, no question--but it's excellent product. Think of it as a really choice cut of Grade A, organic, grass-fed steak. If you're inclined to notice, you'll quickly pick up on the superior flavors, and you'll patiently savor every bite. But if you just came to scarf down a big steak? Well, you'll go home happy too.