***originally written 14 February 2011***
At the end of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit there is a slightly surprising credit. Executive Producer Steven Spielberg. Surprising in the sense that if you were to jump back ten years or so, you couldn’t imagine more unlikely bedfellows. Only slightly surprising in the sense that, despite what the trailer may have led you to believe, this is the Coens’ popularist action adventure piece. This is their summer blockbuster.
Except that it’s winter and, well, it’s the Coens.
I must admit to being apprehensive about this one. I love the Coens’ movies. Even the crappy ones are yards ahead of most mainstream movies. But I do think they work best when mining their own brand of kookiness rather than source materials. As good as No Country For Old Men was, it was more of a Cormac McCarthy movie than a Coen Brothers movie. Left to their own devices they’ll quietly conjure up masterpieces like The Man Who Wasn’t There, A Serious Man or Miller’s Crossing. So when I heard that their next project was going to be a big budget remake of True Grit – itself based on a novel – I was less than enthralled.
And the resulting movie doesn’t feel exactly like a Coens movie in the traditional sense. It feels very much as though they are working outside of their usual comfort zone, but instead of the result being lacklustre or disingenuous, this change of pace has, in a strange way, put a dazzling fresh spin on their work. True Grit finds them working once more with composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Roger Deakins, and they help immensely to wrap the movie in the look and feel of a Coen Brothers movie. Over years of collaboration they have built a magnificent shorthand for what looks good; a signature look and feel that at the same time doesn’t feel stylised or forced. It is this essential Coensiness that holds the movie together, and helps it excel to a higher level than your standard modern Western. I’m looking at you, 3:10 to Yuma.
And then there’s Jeff Bridges, working with the Coens again for the first time since his career-defining turn as The Dude. He stalks gigantic through the movie, a blinding force of acting who makes the ludicrous, almost cartoonish extremes inherent in Rooster Cogburn seem absolutely effortless. It’s another career highlight for sure. The man is a delight to watch and listen to, even when his crabby, slurred speech is difficult to interpret. Without you really knowing how, he makes his grotesque of a character easy to warm to. When he’s not on screen you want him back.
In brief then, True Grit tells the tale of young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who hires Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to help track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. Along the way they are helped and hindered by Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon). The Coens are sensible enough to see that this is Mattie’s story, and so take the brave step of handing over a bulk of the narrative to child-actress Steinfield. She deserves great credit for what she achieves here, managing to make Mattie precocious, shrewd, smart beyond her years and equally as endearing as Cogburn. That she doesn’t come off as an insufferable brat is a thankful miracle. With La Boeuf forming the final angle of a loose triangle, what’s set up is an adventure in unlikely partnerships and the bonding of desperate characters under unusual circumstances.
And it’s fun. Yes, fun. That trailer was oh-so-serious. But this movie is about as light-hearted as the Coens have been in a decade (forgetting, as most of us try to, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers*). True, there are moments of fast, unexpected and quite brutal violence which punch the film up to a 15 rating, but for the most part this is a great family adventure from a mostly-lost tradition of American filmmaking. Suddenly that Spielberg credit makes sense. This is the ‘mythic’ Western, not ‘revisionist’. And maybe the most purely enjoyable one since The Outlaw Josey Wales over thirty years ago. It may not be a typical Coen Brothers movie, but it’s a joy nonetheless. And for those fearing their usual magic may have eluded them, there are still inspired quirks to revel in (two quite unusual characters in particular, one wrapped in a bear hide, the other… really hard to describe. He’s small. And noisy.)
The coda feels like a misstep, as do one or two of the more convenient plot-twists, but supposedly it is faithful to the source material. It may not feel entirely like a new Coen Brothers masterpiece, but that doesn’t stop it from being a masterpiece of some other kind.
*which I actually don’t mind at all.