Renn: Having just pulled a hat-trick of making diversely interesting but soul-crushingly cynical looks at silly humanity, the Coen’s have decided to shift gears and find themselves a character worthy of their admiration. They found just such a character in Mattie Ross, a bereaved 14 year old girl with pig-tails who intends to see the grown man who murdered her father tracked, caught and killed. Beyond finding a worthy hero though, The Coens have fully embraced their return to being bemused by our human foibles, rather than being punishingly merciless in their cataloging of them. This is evidenced by their treatment of Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a drunk, quick-triggered US Marshall who, full of true grit or not, probably wasn’t really worth spit as a person before he took up with a young girl and her quest for vengeance. The same goes for the prideful Texas lawman LaBoeuf, who is all determination and no competence before Mattie’s righteous cause gave him a chance to find his steadier hand.
Here, the Coens have pulled their old trick of bestowing eloquence and entertainingly affected speech on even the most empty-headed of characters. It’s that dialogue that probably isn’t particularly reflective of how most of these characters would have actually spoken, yet it exploits peculiarities of the regional dialect and the period setting to integrate it in a way that feels natural. The language (and perhaps a bear-skin) is their only indulgence as the rest of True Grit, from top to bottom, is an exercise in straightforward storytelling that trades flash and quirk for masterful sophistication.
Dre: Straightforward is a good way of putting it. It sees weird to fetishize competence, but one of the things I love about this film is how it moves. Because of the influence of people like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah few modern Westerns don’t prolong their conclusions, whereas this film keeps on a steady build, and never lets up. From the moment Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie finds Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, doing a voice that reminded me a little of Jamie Gumb), until the denouement, the film doesn’t stop to catch its breath. But it’s fair to say that since John Ford starting working in genre, every film about the west is about the end of the west. And the Coens offer their version of that, but in their own particular way. This isn’t expressly a deconstruction, but it also doesn’t romanticize the west.
As per people’s speech – like O Brother Where Art Thou, I believe this is reflective of the cadence in the King James bible, but I enjoy settling into their American Shakespeare language. And since the Coens are mostly working with familiar faces with its stars, it’s also fun to watch them get a chance to play in that world. Jeff Bridges (great to see him give an actual performance after Tron: Legacy), Matt Damon, Brolin and Barry Pepper are all great – but it’s Steinfeld’s movie.
Nick: The great thing about the dialogue is that it doesn’t matter. Westerns are all over the map, whether it be Deadwood‘s elegant vulgarity or the simple altruistic mutters in popcorn flicks like Tombstone. Given the choice between a movie perfectly capturing the reality of the era and speaking to me on more than just the surface levels, I’ll take the latter every time. True Grit is one of the most amazing dialogue films in some time, at least since In the Loop. It’s funny, very smart, and it cuts right to the heart of the matter. The Coen Bros. are a force of nature and some of their films are the most quotable in history but they also sometimes get too caught up with words in their original works. There’s so much leeway. That is why they are so phenomenal at distilling other people’s work in their adaptations, because the intersection where the source ends and the Coens begin often leads to the most magical stuff.
Watch the horse haggling scene or the first interactions between Mattie and Rooster to see a sample of why the uneven pairing of the Coen Bros. and the famous and beloved True Grit is such a perfect marriage.
Renn: There is little that is inherently remarkable about the plot or characters in True Grit, nothing that would make it seem like an obvious target for the Coen’s highly-valued talent, save for a spunky little girl. There’s nothing particularly crazy or memorable about the story, it’s just a very solid tale and set of characters on which the brothers can work their particular brand of magic. They layer on the spitfire dialogue that’s loaded with the kinds of turn of phrase that just make you smile endlessly. The filmmaking is restrained –which is to say “mature,” or perhaps “wise”– and so the actors get to sit right out in front and light up the screen with some of the best dialogue in the business. You know the top-billed actors were all having fun, as each and every one sports some kind of distinctive vocal affectation- be it Cogburn’s blustering, grumpy rumble, Brolin’s clamped-teeth drone, or LeBeouf’s… injury. In the eye of the storm though, is a 14-year-old girl whose only trick of speech is a startling maturity and a refusal to “varnish her opinion.”
Dre: It’s pretty impressive that this is Haliee Steinfield’s first movie, because she’s freaky good. I love how her emotional responses flicker across her face, from her rising attraction to LeBeouf, to her confrontation with Lucky Ned Pepper, she’s great in this, but when it comes to the Coens, I expect great things, and this is no exception. At this point the one-two punch of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers is behind us.
Nick: There’s no doubt that the Coens are operating in a special creative space right now because even their oddball choices are loaded with value. Burn After Reading and A Serious Man are really intriguing movies, and that these two guys keep doing what they’re doing at the pace they’re doing it negates so much of the things the film business is doing wrong.
Steinfeld is very good, because her performance starts off being impressive in how she’s able to get through all the words required of her as she squares off against some pretty incredible and diverse performers and then becomes something with a life all its own. She’s as compelling as Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, which has no right being even a consideration. We often tear into younger actors when they’re a distraction and give them too much praise when they deliver, but we get to see an actress evolve before our very eyes. Her character doesn’t go through some great change but seeing her actually backing up her ideals gives the film a larger life than the original had because Kim Darby was so out of her depth that John Wayne’s larger than life persona had to keep that film afloat.
Not here. Everyone is up to the task and though many will get credit before him, Barry Pepper may be the biggest revelation here.
Renn: Pepper is great, and enters the film at the right time to remind us that not all bad guys are drunken degenerates or doofuses, that some are articulate and polite while they rob banks or threaten to kill you. Once Mattie has come as far as she has, and out-spoken or outwitted as many as she has, it serves the story well to have a true adult enter the picture and take charge. It puts her in a new, interesting place before the story climaxes, and Pepper has a sort of desperate competence about him that’s very different from the dumbly cutthroat attitudes of Chaney and his ilk. Steinfeld does great work here, because this is the first time she seems truly frightened or intimidated by a person, a subtle presence in her demeanor, but shes still completely unflinching in her responses. Like every piece of this puzzle, the scene is economic yet powerful, and coming towards the end of the film it is doubly so.
This film ultimately comes down to Rooster and Mattie- each gets a meaty introduction with a verbal sparring session that, though the topic at hand may be only tangentially related to the plot, tells us all we need to know about each character and the core values that makes them who they are. The film continues in this manner, giving each of them moments to shine and letting other characters have great bits, but the story barrels towards a conclusion that eventually sheds verbosity for momentum. This is a film about those short, watershed moments in our lives and how they weigh on us or color the rest of our days, no matter how quickly or slowly they may pass. In the old west, where travel and communication happened at a tenth of today’s speed, the Coen’s dig out that haunting feeling of time slipping away, even if the days themselves creak along. The denouement of True Grit is markedly heavy and morose for a light, classically-styled adventure film, and it suggests that Mattie’s youthful wisdom led to her discovering the melancholy of age sooner than most. She inspired a careless man to do something extraordinarily selfless though, and what more happy ending is there?
Dre: One of the things I love about the Coens is something they do here, which is – like Robert Altman and Howard Hawks – they like doing their own take on a genre film. Of course the Coens have been playing with noir (and are nearly fetishistic about old Hollywood), but they obviously enjoy playing against tropes. And what got me most excited about True Grit is that they satisfy the genre while also putting their own spin on it. This functions both as a Coen film, and as a western. But it is Mattie’s story, and you’re right, Renn, it’s given a certain poignancy by being told through the lens of an older self. Most Westerns are about the end of the wild west (characters free from the trappings of civiliations), and here that end is also tie to the end of youth. Nick, I quite liked him as well, what made you think so highly of Pepper?
Nick: He completely disappears into the character so much that it took me some time to see Barry Pepper in there even though I knew in advance that he was in the movie. And he does a marvelous job of conveying a considerable amount of depth with very little screen time and not a heck of a lot of dialogue. As for your statement about how the film works as a Western and a Coen film, I agree but I love that they showed enough restraint to let the film be a mainstream crowd pleaser. It’s a tool they haven’t really shown as much skill with, because even though a lot of their work becomes popular and beloved by the masses most of it requires a little assistance. Weirdly enough, I think this supplants Intolerable Cruelty of all films as their most mainstream work. And a beautiful one it is.
It’s almost a true classic, though I have to admit that I think that the last ten minutes or so (which are apparently very true to the novel) have a much different energy than the rest of the film. It keeps it from being wholly effective but it’s still so damn good it’s hard not to just let the dialogue, performances, and cinematography cover the whole thing with a golden blanket.
Renn: I have to cop to a little bit of disappointment that a few extremely minor technical bumps in that final sequence kind of mar this near-classic right towards the end. It’s nothing that poisons the well, but it’s noticeable enough that you’ll wish they’d found another way to pull things off (I don’t think anyone will have trouble figuring out what I’m referring to.) The energy of the sequence doesn’t bother me –there’s an immediacy to the abrupt shift that works for the context of the scene– but it does plow into that ending. Knit picked, but anything else aside from awe from and and praise for Deakin’s photography would be foolish in the extreme. The man needs no accolades anymore- he’s simply the best out there currently putting images to film.
It’s extremely pleased to see The Coens successfully take on something that’s not cynical to the bone, and as Dre mentioned- it demonstrates that the The Ladykillers dip is well behind us. They’ve tackled the mainstream and the accessible full force without losing who they are as filmmakers and writers, and while the result may not be their new masterpiece, they’ve surely created one of their most generally entertaining and majestic films yet.
9.1 out of 10
Dre: I didn’t mind the denouement as much as some, I guess because I like how – as with much of the rest of the film – it was about the end of the west, but in it’s own peculiar way. It’s definitely a shift. I don’t feel like I’ve said enough about Roger Deakins, the cinematographer. He’s been working with the Coens for nearly two decades, and he’s one of their greatest collaborators. One of my favorite shots of the year is the one in the trees, looking down. This is a gorgeous movie, and the hallucinatory final horse ride is one of those things that’s stayed with me. This is the Coens in master mode, and I agree with you Nick, I think it’s a crowd pleaser, probably the most audience friendly film they’ve ever made. It’s the western part that you never know if people are going to react to.
9.3 out of 10
Nick: This one’s gonna make it. People want to see this film and they want to like it. That’s the power of Jeff Bridges and that’s the power of the ghost of John Wayne. Regardless, we’re the better for it. Here’s hoping the best brothers in film history stay healthy and energized until they’re old and gray.
9.5 out of 10