The Coen Brothers’ True Grit (2010)

Notable Festivals: Berlinale (Opening Night)

Joel and Ethan Coen’s most recent film, 2010’s TRUE GRIT, also happens to be one of their best.  Positioning itself as a second adaption to Charles Portis’ original novel (as opposed to a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne), it would go on to become one of the Coens’ best-received films.  The instantaneous acclaim resulted in yet another Best Picture nomination as well as their first box office gross over $100 million.  It is generally regarded as one of the more superior westerns ever made, besting the cinematic original and even the source novel.

But something else happened along the way.  In their execution of TRUE GRIT, the filmmakers left behind two of their most-defining characteristics: subversion of genre expectations and an ironic point of view.  Oddly enough, the absence of such directorial stylings only bolsters the Coens’ craft.  As it stands, TRUE GRIT is an earnest, optimistic story firmly rooted in the traditions of the western genre.  It’s not a deconstruction, but rather an embrace of genre tropes, brilliantly rendered with the same effective minimalism that propelled 2007’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to similar success.

Taking place in the Arkansas territories in the winter of 1880, TRUE GRIT follows the exploits of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a precocious fourteen year-old girl who has arrived in town to transport her murdered father’s remains back to her family’s homestead.  She also has other, bigger plans– finding Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father, and bringing him to justice.  She enlists the help of a cantankerous old bounty hunter, Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) as well as a vainglorious Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) to act as her guides and accomplices during the hunt.

The cast, comprised of faces both old and new, performs at the top of their game throughout.  Bridges made Oscar history when he was nominated for his performance as Cogburn (it was the first time an actor had been nominated for taking on a role that had earlier earned another Best Actor nomination for its originator, Wayne).  In his second Coen Brothers outing, Bridges completely disappears underneath his scraggly beard and eyepatch, adopting a husky growl of a voice that’s at once both intimidating and endearing.  Damon fully embraces the inherent silliness of his character LeBoeuf by wearing his spurs and strange facial hair with pride.  It’s an involved, dedicated performance that sees Damon bringing a new dimension to his pretty-boy physicality.

But by far, the performance deserving of most acclaim, is that of Steinfeld as Mattie Ross.  A complete unknown beforeTRUE GRIT, Steinfeld was only thirteen years old at the time of filming.  Her Ross is confident and stubborn, with a wit and vocabulary light years beyond her age and small stature.  The story’s events find Ross hardened by the end, but it’s by no means a loss of innocence tale.  Steinfeld came out of left field to deliver one of 2010’s most iconic performances, and her Best Actress nomination was well-earned.  It will be interesting to see what fruit her talents bear as her career unfolds.

Of the supporting cast, only Josh Brolin has had any experience in a Coen Brothers film before (save for a voice cameo by JK Simmons as Mattie’s lawyer).  Having served as the lead in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Brolin trades in screen time for meatier character work.  As the fugitive at the center of the hunt, Brolin’s Tom Chaney is a grizzled, dirty scoundrel with an unusually high-pitched voice that hints at an undiagnosed psychopathy and dangerousness.  Interestingly enough, he’s not the leader of his particular posse– that honor belongs to Lucky Ned Pepper, played with reckless abandon by Barry Pepper.  Pepper relishes the chance to be a vicious miscreant, barking his lines through a mouth caked in spittle, dirt, and gingivitis.  The sickly-looking Lucky Ned proves to be an even more ruthless antagonist than the surprisingly cowardly Chaney.

Roger Deakins, having been absent for 2009’s A SERIOUS MAN, returns to his rightful place as Director of Photography.  As befitting the genre, the 35mm film image is framed to the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  The color palette deals in varying shades of worn brown and desaturated primaries.  Deep shadows stand in stark contrast to the bright, slightly overexposed highlights, which gives a sun-seared patina to the image.  The Coens add a great deal of scale to the picture by framing returning Production Designer Jess Gonchor’s period-authentic details and set dressing with elaborate dolly and crane camera moves.  The Coens are well aware of the sweeping, romantic nature of the western genre, which is reflected in their own work here without the slightest trace of irony.

TRUE GRIT also benefits from the talents of major Hollywood backers like Scott Rudin and Megan Ellison.  Their clout and resources contribute significant production value to the film, and the slightest of cursory looks is all that’s needed to see that all that money is up there on-screen.  The sweeping edit by Roderick Jaynes (aka the Coen Brothers) also adds considerable excitement and substance to the picture.

Carter Burwell returns for scoring duties, crafting one of his most iconic works in the process.  The swelling music, comprised of traditional orchestra instruments, is both rousing and elegiac.  The film’s point of view is that of Mattie’s, twenty five years later as she reflects on how those events shaped who she is today.  As such, there’s an air of melancholy and longing in Burwell’s score– not just for Mattie’s youth, but for the once-open promise of the West as it became settled and incorporated into modern society.

Despite an overtly optimistic and straightforward tone, TRUE GRIT still bears the unmistakeable stamp of the Coen Brothers.  Their love for wry characterization informs a great deal of interactions, giving each actor ample scenery to chew.  The story still begins with a compelling, poetic voiceover.  The violence still packs the same kind of punch as their other films, but the absence of substantial blood and gore allows them to get away with a lot under the film’s PG-13 rating.  The Coens’ mastery of tone allows them to consistently surprise us without breaking any genre rules.

As I mentioned above, TRUE GRIT is the Coen Brothers’ most recent work (as of this writing).  In terms of overall excellence, it’s easily in their top three (the other two being NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and 1996’s FARGO).  While the Coens’ singular voice has stayed the same since BLOOD SIMPLE’s debut in 1984, each successive release has found their craft steadily improving.  The Coen Brothers, as a unified entity, can easily be considered one of our era’s greatest living filmmakers– a notion made all the more impressive considering their truly independent roots.  In their wake, the Coens have inspired countless other filmmakers and liberated them from the notion that drama and comedy are separate conceits.  It turns out, they actually are the same… it just depends on who’s telling the story.

TRUE GRIT is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Paramount.