Joel and Ethan Coen are truly original film makers, and I think I finally nailed down the elusive "Coen Brothers style." They are able to use character and story to elevate their films to the level of real cinematic art, and at the same time carry off the kind of low brow comedy most "artistic" directors run from as if it were plague ridden carrion. By never turning their noses up at either, they are able to deftly and effectively mix the two in a way the presents them as parts of the same whole, which is a real truth.
In True Grit they have a character who is an excellent representation of the same kind of duality. Mattie Ross is a fourteen year old girl, who hires a U.S. Marshall as a bounty hunter to track down and bring in or kill the man who killed her father. It should be mentioned that the girls father wasn't involved in any kind of criminal activity. He was actually trying to convince his killer not to go and kill someone else. Mattie Ross is no fool, as we quickly come to understand through a few business exchanges she conducts to arrange for her father's body to be shipped back to their home, and then with a livery owner who had sold him some horses shortly before he was killed. Both scenes have some very funny moments, and they impress the idea that Mattie Ross may be a young girl but she is no fool. Then she begins pestering the local law enforcement to find out what progress they've made with tracking her father's killer. When she's basically told there isn't and won't be any progress because U.S. Marshall's are the only one's who have any jurisdiction there, a few questions lead her to the idea that Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn is the meanest bastard of the bunch, and Mattie's mind is made up at that moment to contract old Rooster to find her father's killer.
This film differs from the 1969 version in that it's not really about Rooster Cogburn. It's about Mattie Ross and her relationship to Cogburn, and the events that follow her hiring him for the job. Hailee Steinfeld is pretty amazing as Mattie Ross. She's got some television credits on her resume' but this is her first feature film, and she steals her share of scenes from older more experienced actors. This is a strong character. She's not the usual child character thrown in as a plot device. The film's title, True Grit, is as much referring to her character as to Cogburn or anyone else in the film. The character is childish in only one respect, her extremely black and white view of right and wrong, and her bullish nature when it comes to getting what she thinks is right. At first, these come across as very adult qualities, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that she may not have been fully aware of the price for that particular kind of childishness. When Matt Damon shows up as a Texas Ranger who informs her the man who killed her father is wanted in Texas for killing a Senator in Texas, there's a considerable bounty on his head and that he intends to take him back to Texas (I think the film takes place in Arkansas, but I'm not completely positive, and the only thing that really matters is that it isn't Texas), Mattie dresses him down handily. As far as she's concerned, there is only one right in the situation, the man will be caught, tried, convicted and hanged for killing her father, not for killing some Texas Senator. Not everyone is a fan of Matt Damon, I know. He's given one or two very good performances, over all he's passable and always likable. Steinfeld overpowers him in this scene. Part of this is due to the story, because her character is supposed to be able to verbally overpower him, but Steinfeld makes it real. There's none of the mugging which is common with child actors, no score to tell you that's supposed to be the case, and the way the scene is actually shot, looking up at Damon and down and Steinfeld, it's not the visual representation either. It's all her. She imbues Mattie with that exact duality in this scene because it's obvious that the girl's sense of right and wrong, her sense of injustice, is over riding her sense of the humanity of other human beings, which in essence is what a sense of right and wrong and morality is really all about. At this point in the film (very early on), it hasn't tipped it's hand though, and Damon's Ranger Leboeuf (which he pronounces "Lebeef") is a bit foppish and definitely concerned with the image related to being a Texas Ranger in that day and age. There are some great lines in that scene, and it's very funny.
I have to confess that I am not someone who has had the kind of love and respect for Jeff Bridges that I've been reading so much about recently. I thought he was very good in The Fisher King, and of course, The Dude in The Big Lebowski is an iconicly awesome character that he brought to life with real slacker charisma and charm, but for some reason, I just never really thought much of him. It's not that have actively disliked him, it's that I literally didn't think much of him. He's not someone who jumped to mind when I thought about great actors living and working today. His turn here as Cogburn has helped to change that. Because this character was originally portrayed by John Wayne, the comparisons are going to be inevitable. I don't really think it's fair to compare a living actor to a dead legend. Wayne is an icon of the magnitude that our entire culture is still characterized by in some parts of the world. I haven't seen the original film since I was ten or twelve years old, it's not so heavily etched into my mind to be unable to separate the two films and characters. Also, John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn was tailored specifically for him, and apparently this character is much more directly lifted from the original book. Bridges does a great job of portraying Cogburn as a man who is good at one thing only, tracking down and killing fugitives. It seems that when he's not doing that, he's a drunk and a bastard, though sometimes he's a drunk while he's chasing fugtives, which provides Bridges some great material to play. In watching Bridges play Cogburn, I realized that I've rarely thought of him because I'm usually too entertained or horrified (as in the opening of The Fisher King) to sit there thinking, "Wow, that Jeff Bridges is really great." I know a few people who have a violent distaste for Bridges, and that's too bad because they'll be missing a really great film and the kind of entry into the genre that helps to keep the Western alive. Much of that is due to Bridges.
Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin have small roles in the film as well. Brolin plays Tom Chaney, the man responsible for the death of Mattie's father, and Pepper plays the leader of the gang Chaney's taken up with, "Lucky" Ned Pepper. Brolin's Chaney is a dim wit, without the kind of swagger most of his other roles have entailed, and he handles it deftly. His character is stupid, but also quick to anger, as Mattie Ross and Cogburn are, and that's generally a bad combination in film and in real life. He's also waste deep in self pity, which if he were slightly brighter might be a trait I'd dislike in him even more. But he comes across as literally too stupid to know better. In No Country for Old Men, Brolin's character definitely made some poor decisions, but I don't think I've ever seen Brolin play a character this utterly stupid before, and the sincerity he's able to express in that stupidity is impressive, even in the short time we see it. Barry Pepper, well, he's Barry Pepper, and he's characteristically great in his small role as well. There are a handful of actors I really wish were getting better roles more often, and he's one of them. It's possible that the reason I've never seen a bad Barry Pepper performance is that he's not getting enough work to have turned one out, but I doubt that. I always love this guy, no matter what I see him in, and I always completely buy him in whatever role he's playing. He's a relatively young actor, so hopefully at some point in the not too distant future, he'll get the kind of break out role which will afford him the ability to choose whatever projects he wants.
Once again, the Coen Brothers turn to Roger Deakins as the Director of Cinematography. He's worked on a number of their previous films, and again, the results are gorgeous. Westerns are known for their wide open vistas, and there's some of that, but much of the film is also spent lingering on medium distance shots of Mattie and Cogburn, which gives the cinematography the same duality that the story has. On one side of the frame you have the gruff, roaring, unatmable Cogburn whose final idea of right and wrong comes down to who's standing and who's dead, and on the other side of the frame there's Mattie, whose obsession with seeing her own justice meeted out set the whole story in motion. It also serves to help establish both a sense of real isolation, as if they are out in the middle of a wilderness into which few people wander, and that in turn helps to create a considerable sense of realism in the film. And really, it's just beautiful. The colors are deep, rich, earthy and warm. I don't even have to look it up to know that this was shot on film. This is the kind of movie, with the kind of look that makes me hope that the film industry doesn't completely scrap film in favor of strictly digital photography for a very long time to come. Digital can look great and also be beautiful in it's own way, but this is something that I don't know I've seen recreated with digital photography yet. Most of the film takes place in the wilderness, and so far, film captures landscapes and natural settings more beautifully and more naturally than digital does. And it should be mentoined that Carter Burwell's score of authentically period music is gorgeous and understated, never placing itself before what the story and the visual presentation are. There are a few beautiful solo piano pieces which I intend to pick up.
This is probably the most traditional, straightforward and mainstream variety of film the Coens have made. The source material seems to have lent itself to their style quite well though, because it's still very much a Coen Brothers film in it's tone and it's content. It just lacks some of the more surreal or exagerated aspects of their other films. I'd basically suggest this film to anyone. Coen Brothers fans aren't going to be disappointed because it has the strong characters and story we've come to expect from them, but it's not as absurd or bizarre as some of the films they've made which have turned mainstream audiences off. All in all, it's not the caliber of work that Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing or O' Brother Where Art Thou are, but it's still one of the best movies I've seen this year. Probably the best things I can say about it is that I can recommend it to anyone and it's definitely the kind of film I'll be able to watch repeatedly. It'll be the kind of film which will become an old stand by. When I can't decide what else to watch, True Grit will never be a bad choice.