Sitting back in the dark and viewing a Coen Brother’s film brings two contrasting thoughts to mind. One makes you give thanks for the two of them, astounding us with original takes on classic genres for over twenty years and the other states categorically that what we are about to watch will definately not be as good as Fargo.
The Coens are no longer an enigma. their mystery has been deshrouded, we are used to fat men screaming, running jokes, Kubrick references (the best is in O Brother by the way), the mis-pronounciations, the great names and Steve Buscemi ending up dead in a smaller and smaller way. They no longer work outside the system, they are financially viable and could probably get any film made if it cost less than $50,000,000 because there are enough of us out here to pay to see ANY film they cared to throw our way. This is an unfair burden but one they have created for themselves (it’s probably one they couldn’t care less about), the price of being one of the best is alway having to be one of the best.
Which brings us to True Grit, made two years after their first (modern) Western (arguably, Blood Simple has many Western themes but we’ll throw that in Noir and move on), No Country for Old Men. No Country was a superlative piece, expertly adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel and showing they knew the genre inside out. True Grit is a more conventional, classically set picture. A remake of a creaky old John Wayne vehicle that is fondly remembered until watched again.
True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, a precocious and intelligent young girl who pragmatically sets out to avenge her father’s murder by hiring a Marshall to hunt down his Killer. One of the best aspects of the Coen’s work is there almost impeccable casting. Each part tends to be written for very specific actors and they more than often say yes. So, Jeff Daniels is perfect as Rooster Cogburn, all drunken ravings, murderous practicality and gravel voiced conviction and Hailee Steinfeld excells as Matty, amazing us with her sharp tongue, wiseness beyond her years and still juvenile vulnerability. The wild card here is Matt Damon, a newcomer to the Coen’s world and often derided as an serious actor (Bagger Vance, All the Pretty Horses, etc). It’s been fun watching little Matty Damon grow up in front of us, from a trouble math’s genius to an amnesiac secret agent and all the stops inbetween (EBFS has a soft spot for The Informant). He now has the power to be involved with the films he wants to be, and thank god the Coen’s wanted him. Here he is Laboeuf, a texas ranger who was already hunting down the killer for a previous crime. He’s arrogant, vain and not as socially comfortable as he would like. Damon plays him as written (another rule on a Coen’s set) and plays him well.
True Grit’s story is not unusual but it’s charm is. The warmth the characters begin to feel for each other is never stated, it simply happens between the lines and right infront of our faces. It’s a real joy watching them at work. Placing this film outside it’s director’s top five says more about the quality and quantity of the Coen Brothers output than it does about this flm. True Grit is confident, accomplished, measured film making, filled with excellent performances, graced with cinematography that is both haunting and poetic and plays out a story that is dramatically fulfilling and totally suitatble for it’s genre. Still not top five material though.
It falls between Miller’s Crossing and Burn After Reading. You can do the rest.