The Coen Brothers have long been known for tackling different genres and providing their own unique spin on them, so it comes as no surprise that one day they would get around to the most American of movie genres – the Western. That they chose to remake one of the classics, “True Grit,” which won John Wayne an Academy Award, IS a surprise.
Thankfully, Joel and Ethan Coen do justice to both the novel and the earlier film, and in the process, manage to make a western complete with all the quirks that come with the Coen territory.
Western films almost always deal in the mythology of the West – the good guy in the white hat, the bad guy in the black one – and “True Grit” does it’s best to both honor that mythology and turn it on its head. Rather than give us the typical expansive vistas and shots of cowboys riding off into the sunset, The Coen Brothers have made an intimate epic, one of close-ups and quiet conversations.
In this respect, it works spectacularly. Told through the recollections of a young girl, the film tells a simple story of revenge and redemption. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) employs the services of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to avenge the murder of her father at the hands of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Cogburn is an alcoholic, washed-up U.S. Marshall of questionable morals who doesn’t necessarily want to take on the case. But Mattie is a shrewd and determined young woman, and it isn’t long before they’re on the chase. They are joined on their quest by LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a talkative and boastful Texas Ranger.
The film follows the traditional trajectory of a western, but the journey is unmistakably one being led by the Coen Brothers. Though we’ve gotten used to the flowery language of the West as embodied by the HBO series, “Deadwood,” the screenplay here is also word-heavy and contraction-free. It’s also very funny and disarming, so that when moments of violence do occur, they are shocking and serious. This is the Old West, after all, and you never know if the stranger approaching you on horse from up the road is going to be a friend or foe.
The screenplay also works as a smart young woman’s memory – in her literary mind, this is how people talked. The Coen’s further show their hand that this is a memory story during the last, wonderfully dream-like sequence with Rooster and Mattie riding through the night on a horse.
Holding all of this together is an incredible cast. From the smallest role to the largest, there isn’t one false moment in it. Jeff Bridges is truly experiencing some kind of acting renaissance lately, and his performance is yet another awards contender. He doesn’t even try to take on the legend of John Wayne. Instead, he makes the character his own. Matt Damon is also fantastic, catching just the right balance between swagger and genuine emotion. Josh Brolin is menacing in a glorified cameo. But holding it all together is Hailee Steinfeld in an assured, nuanced debut. Her Mattie is both wide-eyed and clear-eyed, knowing just when to be tough, and when to be the young girl that she truly is.
“True Grit” is another winner from the Coen Brothers, and one of the best films of the year. It might just be one of the best Westerns since “Unforgiven.”
TRUE GRIT Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen; Scr: Joel and Ethan Coen (Novel by Charles Portis); Stars: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld. Rated PG-13