Let me recommend to you this fine review of this season’s best movie. Once again, I think the Coen brothers more than flirt with nihilism. The murderous violence of the film is, deep down, senseless, and the girl’s’ quest for justice defined as vengeance most misguided. Still, two bounty hunters …
Also read this great analysis at the NYT. I’m not a professional at this but I think True Grit s one of the best movies made in the last decade. Avatar was a great movie, not because of the characters it created, which were pretty stereotypical, but because of the amazing landscape it placed them in. True Grit is great because it it puts amazing characters into a stereotypical landscape, one that helps inform us about ourselves in surprising ways.
While seemingly very simple, it provides such a complex examination of both our past and present, with characters who are simultaneously human and inhumane, that we have to watch it more than once to catch the nuances. And, in a way not often seen in Coen Brothers movies, it taps into our soft emotions and needs in ways that are seldom done as gracefully. I have laughed at Coen Brothers’ movies before and I have gotten teary eyes once or twice. But I was having to hold back body wrenching sobs in this one so that I would not embarrass my wife and son.
This is the first Coen Brothers movie I would call touching.
True Grit, as presented by the Coen Bothers and by the original book, is a classic bildungsroman, a story that examines a child’s journey into adulthood. We see the world through Mattie’s eyes as she goes on the journey that will define the rest of her life. The twist is that generally the journey ends by the protagonist becoming acclimated to society’s wants, no longer rebelling against them. Here, it is society and its people who change, essentially becoming the people Mattie wants them to be.
This movie is the first ruthlessly straightforward great Western of the last decade, if not longer. It reminded me in many way of the purity of The Outlaw Josey Wales, occupying a similar time period after the Civil War, when what was right and what was moral were still in flux. This movie presents some things that are much more deeply engrained in America than the very fun trifle that was the John Wayne version.
We see Mattie Ross enter into the American Frontier, the western edge of Arkansa. Young, like America, yet she has a firmness of view that will, in the end, get her what she wants. The world around her is in chaos, with good men being killed for no good reason, bad men going off scot-free and society not giving a whit.
She effectively takes Rooster and LaBoeuf, a drunkard and a braggart respectively and turns them into heroic icons by the end. While they do what they do for their own reasons, Mattie has crafted those reasons to fit her own. Better than she could have known, as her own survival becomes dependent on that very craftwork. (The true genius of the Coen Brothers and their cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was never more apparent than in the heroism of Rooster at the end. I still tear up thinking about it. It is the single most emotionally charged scene they have ever done.)
Her point of view not only transformed the two men into better shadows of themselves, at least for an instant, but also was ultimately responsible for the effective establishment of what we would call American morality.
In a twist on the normal narrative, Mattie is really no different at the end of the movie than at the beginning, although she pays a strong physical price for that. But the world is different. She is still unbending in her view of right, of who has true grit. We can see it in her encounter at the end with Cole Younger and Frank James – one she treats respectfully and the other she despises. But her viewpoint changed the world.
And, as with all great Westerns, her journey is a journey of the United States.
The Coen Brothers demonstrate here just how important Westerns are to understanding America. The great ones resonate with us in ways no other genre can. Stagecoach, Red River, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven – all tell us about our country and why we want it to be what it is.
So does this version of True Grit, because it does more than simply show us the West. It helps us understand why we are the way we are. Mainly because Mattie’s view of true grit won the day.
The craftsmanship of the Coen Brothers has never been on better display. They are operating at the peak of their abilities, providing us with a narrative that never seems unlikely or artificial. While I adore many of their earlier movies, that was one telltale aspect of their work – its obvious artifice. I always knew I was watching characters on a screen. In other Coen Brother movies, I often felt that the characters were doing what the Bothers had decided for them to do. That was the artifice. It was genius and wonderfully done by always had a slightly oddly artificial quality to them.
Not this movie. The surprise of True Grit is that I never thought that at all. The characters seemed so real and such a real part of the environment. The characters did what THEY had to do, not what the Brothers decided for them to do. It is almost as if they are now so confident in their craft that they no longer have to put ‘their’ imprint on the movie, creating a seamless masterpiece that is wholly their creation, yet not.
Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon both show that in an earlier time, they could have owned the Western genre. We love them so much that one of the hardest things the movie does is not let us say goodbye to them. They both float offstage without a final bow. Noone but us and Mattie know of their heroism.
Bridges was wonderful in Crazy Heart last year, revealing that a career that started with Academy Award nominations will also end with them. Jeff Bridges is one of 6 men who won an Academy Award after the age of 60 and the only one who arguably won it for his acting in that movie, rather than rewarding a career. John Wayne won an Oscar for True Grit at the age of 62. It would be wonderful if Jeff Bridges won his second post-60 Oscar for the same role. He does deserve it because I think he was better in this role than in Crazy Heart.
And Hailee Steinfeld may be burdened with this standout role her whole career. She so wholly occupied the persona of Mattie that we may easily see her as anything else. Her performance is what makes the entire movie possible. The casting by Jo Edna Boldin, Ellen Chenoweth and Rachel Tenner should also win some awards.
I really do not see how the Coen Brothers can top this but if they can, we are in for some incredible work ahead, even if they only come close.