Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
The Coen Brothers are known for the masterful way in which they take a genre story and warp it into something exceptional. The Big Lebowski is their take on a detective story, Intolerable Cruelty their romantic comedy and O Brother Where Art Thou their musical. Now with True Grit, they are applying their cerebral peculiarities to the western. Although not the first time the pair have retold a story their own way (they remade The Ladykillers in 2004 with Tom Hanks), they have stressed that they aren’t remaking the 1969 True Grit, but instead offering a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’s source novel.
In doing so their True Grit focuses on 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). Sharp-witted and resourceful, Mattie sets about planning a pedantic revenge strategy after her father is murdered by outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). After inquiring about a U.S Marshal to track Cheney down, she settles for Rooster Cogburn, (Jeff Bridges) due to the legend of his mercilessness. However cocky Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) has been tracking Cheney, and joins the pair to hunt down the outlaw.
While the plot appears to be a customary cowboy story, the Coens’s transform it into something extraordinary through their dialogue. Mattie Ross follows the long line of fast-talking, quick-witted Coen leading ladies and Steinfield’s endearing performance draws comparison with Frances McDormand in Fargo and Burn After Reading. Her straightforward, bible-spouting turn is a highlight of the film, as is her repartee with her two older male co-stars (“you do not give out much sugar with your pronouncements” a bruised LaBoeuf remarks after one of her caustic digs). Matt Damon also displays a natural ability at delivering Coen dialogue, his swaggering “rodeo clown” Ranger veering knowledgeably between earning the audience’s sympathy and scorn. But it is Jeff Bridges who steals the film from his co-stars, much like he did with The Big Lebowski. Whether drunkenly flinging biscuits to shoot at or riding guns blazing against five men, Bridges delivers a career best performance. The supporting cast, including Barry Pepper and Domhnall Gleeson also shine, but it’s the leads that remain in the memory.
But the way in which the brothers subvert True Grit into something more than just another western is through applying their offbeat humor. The po-faced marketing with Johnny Cash’s Christian battle hymn “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” echoing throughout is almost selling a different film. Whether it’s LaBoeuf ruefully revealing that he almost kissed Mattie as she slept (despite, he said, her being “very young, and sick…and unattractive”) or Mattie laying into Cogburn’s speech impediment (telling him that futile is not spelt “f-u-d-e-l”), emphasis is put on the absurdity. Really it could be said that the film is funny in the way that Steve Buscemi’s foot in the woodchipper in Fargo was funny.
Dialing down the eccentric means the Coen’s have the most financially successful film of their career, yet their trademarks (though diluted) are still present and the brothers have once again delivered an outstanding film.
By Alex Towers