There is, without a doubt, a generally accepted film-lovers canon. Disregarding the ample bickering amongst ourselves concerning certain entries, the best of these films retain their ability to solicit empathy that transcends their specific moment in time. Whether they employ star-crossed lovers, newspaper moguls or anthropomorphic robots, classic movie characters represent much more than their own historical context. And without discounting the brilliance of the genre’s best stoic visages, the man of the old Wild West often seems to stand slightly apart from the league of beloved American film characters. This is not the case, however, in the Coen Brothers’ latest effort, True Grit.
I won’t waste too many keystrokes comparing True Grit to its 1969 predecessor (directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne) of the same name. Lucien Ballard and Roger Deakins, cinematographers of the original and remake respectively, both accurately capture the intimidating expanses of unsettled America as well as the human interactions that take place in the vaccuum of the plains. What stands out about the Coens’ film, however, is how they tweak the rather conventional revenge plot at the center of both films to appeal more strongly to a modern audience. That is not to say that the Coens’ film is any more skillful. Rather, it is simply more indicative of both the alienation that was highlighted by the Western classics as well as the ultra-modern, absurdist view of the universe present in almost all of the Coens’ films.
There is one fundamental difference between the world of John Wayne’s “Rooster” Cogburn and Jeff Bridges’. It is not a function of horses and guns, the primary preoccupations of the Old West. Rather, it is language, not horsepower or firepower that is the key to winning the day in the Coens’ West. True Grit centers on 14-year-old Mattie Ross (expertly played by fresh face Hailee Steinfeld) and her humble quest to avenge her father’s senseless death at the hands of thief Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, looking like a Wild West bad guy if there ever was one.) It is Ross’ sharp wit and surprisingly adept rhetoric that allows her to keep pace with the film’s large and small players alike. She talks the pompous general store owner into blubbering putty with the same ease that she threatens a thoroughly-intoxicated Cogburn and LaBoeuf, the proudest Texas Ranger in the land (played by Matt Damon and more than a hint of self-tanner) to perform the deed she is unable to do herself. Even in the farthest reaches of civilization, a way with words is more powerful than a gun. Mattie Ross is actually more like The Social Nework‘s Mark Zuckerberg than she is like little Debbie who needs to be rescued by her big, bad uncle John Wayne in The Searchers.
It is yet another testament to the Coens’ skill (not to mention the complexity of the source material) that the subtle shifts in performance amongst the film’s three main players bring the dusty and unfriendly West to those who relate more closely to The Dude than they do to a snarling young Clint Eastwood. With a small seed of sadness hiding in Steinfeld’s Ross, insidious self-service in Damon’s LaBoeuf and personal failure in Bridges’ Cogburn, the three become citizens of all time, not just their own. There may have been plenty of scrappy young girls in the old West (and Kim Darby as the original Mattie is scrappy personified) but most don’t have the steely resolve that Steinfeld’s Ross does. She’s the spiritual cousin to Uma Thurman’s Bride, not Darby’s original.
Typically, this is where I would bemoan the current state of the film industry and christen the Coens’ True Grit a blinding light of cinematic brilliance in an otherwise cavernous year of pandering piles of post-converted digital mess. Thankfully, however, I don’t need to. Perhaps I view this year’s oeuvre as more promising than most, but I see True Grit as an achievement consistent with the interesting new work being done by Hollywood’s hottest directors this year. Sure, Aronofsky’s still got that Steadycam, Nolan sits comfortably behind a rock-solid wall of fanboys and no one’s taken away Fincher’s digital toys (yet). But once the Oscar buzz dies down and the praise-backlash-canonization cycles are completed, I feel that True Grit will come to stand out as the best entry in an incredible group of films. Anytime you’re dealing with Westerns, alienation is the name of the game. But in this year’s Grit, the small glimpse into Deakins’ shadows (as opposed to Ballard’s glaring sun) is enough to update the Wild West for the modern cinephile. And, lest we forget that we are in the hands of Joel and Ethan, we still get major plot points from a dentist wearing a bear.
True Grit is a hilarious, energetic and expertly shot re-imagining of the old West through the lens of the always off-kilter Coen Brothers. A.