True Grit

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges
Runtime: 110 Minutes
Rating: ****

This film is showing in York at City Screen. Click here for more information.

True Grit has confirmed the Coen brothers as leading 21st century filmmakers. Just as last year’s Shutter Island was the biggest ever hit of an acclaimed director like Martin Scorsese, the pair normally associated with a non-conformist quirkiness have had their greatest box office success to date. They have their many awards nominations to thank, alongside a grand promotional campaign centred on the word “RETRIBUTION” (a word not used once in the film). With a learned Bible quote in every other scene, True Grit is by no means the Western-style revenge flick implied by a trailer that contains probably every single gunshot from the movie, but the very suggestion of this to audiences can play an important role in what the Coens have done with this story.

Joel and Ethan themselves have said in recent interviews that they think of one another as being at the heart of the mainstream now, and the origins of their new film might suggest they have little ownership of their work. True Grit is the name of a 1960s novel written by Charles Portis set in post-Civil War Arkansas and Oklahoma; narrated by elderly spinster Mattie Ross, the story recalls the search for the killer of the heroine’s father. Aged just fourteen, the precocious, rebellious Mattie hunts for the drifter Tom Chaney with a one-eyed, alcoholic Deputy U.S. Marshall called Rooster Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf. The book formed the basis of a popular John Wayne film, a fun but overlong Western that changed Portis’ ending and had Ross played by a twenty-two year old actress.

From a novel haunted by Huckleberry Finn and outlaw legends like Jesse James, who characters have met but is never part of the story, Cogburn then became a mythical figure in his own right. The Coen brothers have used Portis’ novel for much of the film’s script, creating comedy out of the biblical/legal language and polite, argumentative dialogue, and selectively picking from Ross’ narration for the more elegant notes of the tale. By casting 61-year-old Jeff Bridges in the role of Cogburn, however, the Coens’ are not just negotiating with Portis’ text, in which the Marshal is in his 40s, but also the character identified with an ageing John Wayne. Bridges’ Big Lebowski persona informs his growling take on Cogburn: he’s introduced off-screen and on the toilet. When we next meet him, however, he seems mythical and no longer mundane in a dimly lit, unreal courtroom.

A scene is invented for the film where Mattie writes to her mother just before leaving for the road to catch Chaney, typically saying “I’m about to embark on a great adventure.” That introduction to Cogburn, Mattie’s confrontation with Chaney and many other instances cleverly play with the girl’s expectations for how great her adventure is going to be; at times it’s worthy of all the heroism and excitement she could hope for, and at others her wishes are ruined by everything from feeble bickering to a great, cruel sense of mortality.

The film’s comedy and its handling of genre sees the Coens at the height of their powers, accompanied by some of their most reliable collaborators including the fantastic cinematographer Roger Deakins, and Bridges on sparkling form. Although her characterisation follows certain child-star conventions that the film’s executive producer Steven Spielberg would be proud of, lacking the wonderful, mysterious contradictions of Portis’ original narrator, Hailee Steinfeld’s turn as Mattie Ross carries the whole film.

Some of the casting choices – Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, Josh Brolin as Chaney, Barry Pepper as outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper (!) – seem a little weak, but no performance in the film turns out quite as you would expect, and Brolin’s father James puts in a nice cameo in the ending. This finale, which contains the end of Mattie’s adventure and an epilogue, is the most touching the Coens have made: deeply emotional without losing the clever, ambiguous tone of their work.