True Grit – A Classic Western From The Coen Brothers

By Ezra Stead

True Grit, USA, 2010

Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Based on the Novel True Grit by Charles Portis

The Coens' True Grit is better than the original.

If I were going to direct a Western, I wouldn’t even consider any other cinematographer than Roger Deakins. A frequent collaborator of the Coen Brothers, Deakins shot two of the best films of 2007 – the Coens’ No Country For Old Men and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (quite possibly the best Western ever made) – and it was his painterly eye and excellent use of light that created the mournful, elegiac and distinctly American feel of both those excellent films. Now he has reteamed with Joel and Ethan for their first true period Western, True Grit, and more than their wonderfully dry humor or the excellent performances by Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, it is his work that makes the film as good as it is.

Don’t get me wrong – the Coens have created a truly classic film here, a real Western with all the best parts of the 1969 original intact and amplified, and with a much stronger sense of the other characters besides Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn (whereas the original was mainly a vehicle to showcase John Wayne’s finest performance). Bridges is utterly believable and likable as the irascible Cogburn, and Steinfeld is a talent to watch in the coming years, imbuing young Mattie Ross with a steel resolve that makes me think the 14-year-old could probably beat me in a fight. As mentioned above, the script is full of wonderfully dry humor and startlingly realistic violence (I can’t imagine what they had to cut to whittle it down to a PG-13); there is much to praise about all aspects of the film, but for me it is definitely Deakins’ work that shines the brightest.

From the opening shot, which nearly made me jump out of my seat and cheer as it slowly revealed itself, this film is gorgeous. There is an attention to detail not always found in period films these days, and with the exception of the aforementioned Jesse James and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), I am hard-pressed to think of a more realistic depiction of the ugliness and grime of the old West from the last decade. I would have to dig back to Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven to come close.

The story concerns young Mattie’s determination to seek revenge for the murder of her father by the drunken and seemingly half-retarded Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a member of an outlaw gang led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, in an almost unrecognizably filthy and nasty role). To wit, she hires Cogburn, a legendarily ruthless but also constantly drunken U.S. Marshall. They are joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is far more upright and therefore less likable than Cogburn, and their constant squabbling creates much of the film’s comedy. Mattie brings out the best in Cogburn, the now dormant hero gunfighter and lawman that he once was, and becomes almost like a daughter to him by the end.

The film has its flaws, some of which are attributable to its quality. For example, both Brolin as Chaney and Pepper as, well, Pepper, could have had a lot more screen time in my opinion, as both are a joy to watch when they are onscreen. Another gripe I have is that there are almost no contractions in the dialogue; it starts to feel clunky and call attention to itself after a while when everyone is saying “cannot” and “will not” instead of “can’t” and “won’t” all the time. I imagine this may be due to the Coens’ determination to remain faithful to Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, which I haven’t read, but it didn’t really help the movie for me.

Still, these are relatively minor quibbles, and the last ten minutes or so – the film’s coda, if you will – more than make up for all of them. Without spoiling the content of the ending, I will say that it is a pitch-perfect picture of the futility of vengeance as a means to a happy and fulfilling life, all serviced beautifully by Deakins’s stellar camerawork.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.


2 Comments

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9133">
    Dougf

    “Without spoiling the content of the ending, I will say that it is a pitch-perfect picture of the futility of vengeance as a means to a happy and fulfilling life..”

    Umm— No it isn’t. Mattie in no way feels ‘futile’ at the end, and the book especially makes that very clear indeed. She has her bank and her moral values and her faith. Nor does she EVER regret doing what she did and she clearly would do it all over again should the need ever arise. Nor do either of the other members of the ‘posse’. You are entitled to have interpretations of reality and moral signposts for your life but you should not impose them as givens on a situation just to make a point.
    And vengeance (or more appropriately ‘justice’) is of course not a means to anything in life EXCEPT a balancing of the scales. Happiness hardly enters into the equation. It’s not relevant as Mattie herself would forcefully remind you were she able. She did only what she had to do in a situation where no-one else was about to do it. Only that and nothing more. Or less.

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