Of all the film genres that the Coen brothers could have taken on, the western is the most resistant to attempts to subvert or tinker with the conventions that make it what it is. Of course, there are always exceptions (McCabe And Mrs Miller, The Great Silence, El Topo), but because its mythology is so deeply ingrained in the American consciousness, the Hollywood western (like many of its most enduring protagonists) has to do what the western has to do.
And so it is with True Grit as, for the first time in a long while, the Coens play a relatively straight bat. Therefore, True Grit refuses to deprive us of a climactic showdown (unlike The Big Lebowski), will not tolerate an abundance of idiosyncrasies in its characters (unlike Fargo, Burn After Reading) and will have no truck with a lead who is hopelessly adrift in circumstances spiralling out of his control (unlike Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, A Serious Man, etcetera).
For while there are some quirky touches that could arguably have only come from them (the travelling dentist in the bear skin, for one) this is as complete an immersion in genre as the Coens have attempted thus far in their careers. However, what it has in common with much of their previous output is that it is a beautifully crafted movie, with wonderful ensemble acting and a script that rests easy on the ear.
The relatively straightforward tale of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who hires a hard drinking US Marshall to track down and kill the man who murdered her father, one of the film’s great virtues is its simplicity. This allows the characterisations to come to the fore and it’s the development of the relationship between the three leads that gives the film its most obvious appeal.
We follow Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and LaBeouf (Matt Damon) as they pursue murderous Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), all the while bickering and sniping about reputations, obligations and the practicalities of the task ahead.
Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992, that other great western of the last twenty years, it deconstructs the myths and legends of the old West (Rooster will have no compunction about shooting a man in the back if it gives him an advantage) and strips it of any hint of romanticism.
This approach is typified in Brolin’s villain, a man far removed from the slick, cruel killer of Jack Palance in Shane, or the tortured but charismatic leader of men that is Gian Maria Volonté in For a Few Dollars More. Rather he is a stupid, self-pitying individual, too lacking in intelligence to make anything of his life and too weak to do anything other than take the path of least resistance. Brolin plays him like a whipped dog, easily cowed by his master (an almost unrecognisable Barry Pepper), but quick to bite the hand of anybody who puts out a hand to help him, as Mattie’s father found to his cost.
These characters are set against a backdrop of lonely and sometimes cruel beauty, a snow powdered landscape where men are left to rot wherever they hang or fall, their corpses arranged like refuse outside a cabin door, because the winter frost has made the ground too hard to bury them.
However, it also displays a lightness of touch that offsets some of the bleaker aspects, its comedy emerging naturally in some wonderful verbal exchanges (Mattie’s thorough trouncing of a horse trader who attempts to cheat her out of a deal), as well as moments of dark humour such as when Rooster attempts to yank off the excess bit of LaBeouf’s tongue after he’s fallen and bitten through it.
At the heart of the movie Hailee Steinfeld is never anything less than thoroughly convincing in the part of Mattie Ross. Initially, she’s all business, seeming to approach the avenging of her father’s murder as a duty, rather than an emotional compulsion. We don’t see any display of feeling when she views her father’s body. She’s stubbornly persistent in getting what she wants from the horse trader, and she exhibits an annoying tendency to bother people when they’re either fast asleep or attending to their ablutions in the outdoor toilet. But Mattie is further evidence of the type of individual you need to be in order to survive in this environment and the true grit of the title applies to her as much as it does to Rooster Cogburn.
As her character develops and she demonstrates her bravery and determination, we eventually warm to her, much as Rooster does when it becomes clear to him that they both possess a moral outlook that’s remarkably similar. However, the stern old maid that she’s grown into by the film’s conclusion is a natural and believable progression from the duty bound and precocious young woman we know, and is proof that these characters are not meant to go on and lead particularly fulfilling lives. They just go on.
In the world of True Grit, people survive or die, and in the midst of this survival, obey the dictates of duty or self-interest according to the obligations lain on them by their lot in life.
Although Mattie may be at the heart of the movie, it’s Rooster Cogburn who is the heart of the movie, embodying, like so many gunslingers before him, the truth that, in a western, a man’s character is revealed, not in what he says, but in what he does.
Bridges plays him with just enough ambiguity to make you wonder about his past and whether he’s always been the good man he portrays himself to be, while still allowing him to be the hero the movie demands. In addition, his relationship with Texas Ranger, LaBeouf acts as a further deconstruction of the myths of the West, as each man challenges the self-perpetuated legends and stories of the other.
Sometimes this is done for comedic effect (as when they both claim to have hit a biscuit tossed into the air to prove their shooting skills). Sometimes things take a more dramatic turn. For instance, there’s an argument around a campfire that sees each man assessing how far he will be pushed before he feels the need to salvage some pride. LaBeouf’s voice shakes when his integrity is questioned, and you can see the wheels turning behind Rooster’s one steely blue eye in a moment of quiet tension, the moment left hanging and only really resolved later on, when we see that some of the legends are true. It’s a brilliant scene and one that ably demonstrates the subtle complexities at work beneath the Stetsons of these men. The story may be simple, but its people are not.
The film is full of comparable moments, moments that are sometimes punctuated by short, brutal acts of violence. It also contains scenes that are as endemic to the western genre as beans are to a campfire: the gentle Carter Burwell score that swells as Maddie pursues Rooster and LaBeouf across a deepening river on horseback, the snowy grey landscapes that give way to brown, wind swept prairies, and the rousing showdown that not even filmmakers as wilfully unpredictable as the Coens could duck out of.
True Grit is one of those films that you try and savour every minute of as it unfolds, where you pay as much attention to the words being spoken as you do the actions that accompany them. Along with Unforgiven, it’s the best western of a generation and is testament to the fact that the Coens can create a full-on, old school genre film as accomplished as some of the genre’s greats. It isn’t the best film the Coen brothers have made so far. (I have to stick with Barton Fink on that score.) But it’s a Coen brothers western, and that alone should be recommendation enough.
A rather brief featurette on the cast doesn’t really tell us anything other than how wonderful it was for everybody to work with everybody else. There’s a nice feature on Hailee Steinfeld that indicates this is not an actress for whom vanity will ever deny her interesting roles, and there’s a look at both the costume and set design of the movie. None of it’s very substantial, though, and without a commentary, it’s a set of features that doesn’t do justice to the film they accompany.
True Grit is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.