True Grit was my favorite movie of 2010. There wasn’t much hesitation there. I saw it and I made that decision right quick. Normally there’s a fair amount more deliberation in my mind over such declarations, but movies so impeccably mounted and raucously enjoyable on a simultaneous basis are rare enough that it gave me the instant courage to say so. I admit it’s a tenuous climb out on a slender limb to advocate for the greatness of a Coen Brothers movie, but that’s just me. I take the big risks.
In True Grit, the great Jeff Bridges plays Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a grouchy slob of a drunk with an eyepatch over one eye and a burning enthusiasm for frontier justice in the other. True Grit was originally a novel by Charles Portis, and then it was a movie in 1969, in the cool-down phase of John Wayne’s long career. I regret to admit that I haven’t seen that earlier movie, but I have read the book so I can tell you that the Coen Brothers’ rendition is eminently faithful to Portis in both spirit and text.
True Grit is the closest we’ve come so far to a mainstream, crowd-pleasing Coen Brothers movie. It has all the virtues and eccentricities and technical brilliance that the Coens have taught us to expect from them, but it also is just a bit more conventional than usual. The heroes are actually heroic, for one thing. There’s the aforementioned Jeff Bridges, as charismatic and ingratiating as ever, even when he’s playing a character that often looks as lousy as he often acts. There’s Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef”), the uptight lawman who ends up as a reluctant teammate. Matt Damon is hilarious in this movie, toning down his impeccable way of making an audience believe he can do anything, until he appears to be a total dunce, only to end up surprising you all over again.
But before these two guys enter into the story, and after they leave it too, there’s Mattie Ross, played by the young Hailee Steinfeld. Mattie’s father was killed by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and she wants him brought to justice. She hires Marshall Cogburn, because she’s heard he has “true grit,” and insists that she get to accompany him in the pursuit. (For a pre-adolescent in a man’s belchy, farty world, she’s ridiculously, brilliantly persuasive.) LaBoeuf, already in pursuit of Chaney across state lines, joins them. Nobody gets along.
The confrontational banter between the three main characters is some of the most pure joy that movies can provide. Obviously the Coens provide some of the most distinct and musical dialogue of any writers around, but it should be said that a lot of the dialogue in this film comes directly from Portis’ novel. The Coens, as one of the most unique filmmaking forces to emerge from America in the past thirty years, aren’t exactly known for their skillful facility with adaptations, but they should be — it is a part of their resume. Their planned adaptations of James Dickey’s To The White Sea and Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre have yet to be realized, but of course they reached new heights with their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. They also know their detective fiction; as their debut, Blood Simple, referenced the work of Dashiell Hammett, and their most popular movie, The Big Lebowski, is essentially a take-off of The Big Sleep, originally a Raymond Chandler novel. The Coens know how to enliven the work and the influence of others while bringing their own individualistic stamp to it. They know their pulp literature and they know their film history, and they bring all of it to bear in True Grit.
Did someone say “bear”?
Yeah, there’s a lot of humor in True Grit, both ridiculous and profound. The trailers and promotional materials have emphasized the pure badass-ness of the movie – and that’s there, no mistake – but it’s a wonderful surprise to discover how hysterical it is. It’s funny even in its most tragic moments, just like real life. There’s a black humor and a sharp tang to the unsentimental nature of the movie, and it’s totally refreshing to experience, particularly at a time of year that can either go too sweet or too sour. The tone of True Grit isn’t too treacly and it isn’t too harsh. It’s just right. (There goes that bear reference again…)
True Grit is really kind of perfect, from the imagery captured by the legendary Roger Deakins, to the wonderful score by underrated Coen regular Carter Burwell, to the two memorably uglied-up and weirdly compelling villains of the piece, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned. It should get repetitive to note how dependably watchable Matt Damon and the Coens are, but it really doesn’t. They’re that good. Everyone involved in this project is working at the peak of their respective craft.
But in the end, if there’s a defining feature of this movie, it will be that unusual, indelible relationship between the two riding companions, Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, and there are no two more ideal actors on the planet (or in the throughways of time and space) to play them than Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. There’s something both truly real-world relatable and movie-perfect that happens in the alchemy of casting and characters here. The magic that occurs between the two of them make True Grit something truly special, even by the absurdly high standards that the Coen Brothers have set for themselves and for the rest of us.
True Grit is now playing at MoMA, since it has been officially added to their library of notable and classic films.
As something are a bonus, here are some random thoughts and observations that passed through my head as I watched True Grit on subsequent occasions and couldn’t settle on how to edit into my main review:
- One thing that cracks me up is that this is the Coens’ idea of a kids’ movie (*). I completely approve, don’t get me wrong, but it brings to mind the notion of a Clint Eastwood Preparatory School For Girls. (Actually, that very thing happened once, in The Beguiled, and it didn’t work out too well for anyone.)
- True Grit is as close as the Coens will probably ever get to convention, but it’s still as unusually wonderful as any of their original creations. It is, actually, aside from all the talk of killing, not unsuitable for younger folks. There’s a keen moral streak running through this movie, distinctly and typically contradictingly American. And it’s an absolute celebration of language.
- Between the first and second times I saw the movie, I read the original novel by Charles Portis. It’s striking to see how closely the Coens stuck to the original text in their adaptation. Some of the stuff you’d swear they invented were already there, although some, like the bear suit guy and the hanging man, were Coen additions. Much of the dialogue is spoken verbatim from the book, and how wonderful that is.
- Mattie doesn’t shed a tear when presented with her father’s dead body. She doesn’t shed a tear, until later on, when she’s handed his gun. Then the water trickles down. This is a distinctly American touch.
- In both the book and the film, the major setpieces are more often structured around language than incident. (The haggling over horses, the courtroom scene, the campfire scenes, etc.) In other words, the conversations are as important and as thrilling, if not moreso, than the shootouts.
- J.K. Simmons vocal cameo as Lawyer Daggett! (Daggett is a character with slightly more of a presence in the Portis book.)
- The climactic snakepit scene is very strongly foreshadowed, the closer you watch the movie.
- Barry Pepper (as the badman Lucky Ned) is such a great, unfairly-unheralded actor. Just always good.
- The guy who makes all those crazy animal sounds, believe it or not, is in the book. The Coens didn’t make him up, although I would’ve sworn to it.
- Tom Chaney turns out to be exactly the way Mattie had him pegged, a wretch and a whiner. Dumb: “I must think on my situation and how I may improve it.” And mopily repetitive: “Everything is against me.” (Pretty cool of leading-man-type Josh Brolin to be willing to play such a lame-ass.)
- Speaking of which, again I say, how ridiculously consistent is Matt Damon? Does that dude have to be so good at everything? Obviously Jeff Bridges and little Hailee Steinfeld are totally incredible in this movie, but don’t take what Matt Damon does here for granted. He lets himself be the butt of the joke, almost until you forget that he isn’t. So well done, this supporting act.
- The valiant end of Mattie’s horse just guts me, every single time.
- In fact, the end of the movie is so damn sad. Bittersweet, I guess, but seeing as it’s about how quick life can go, even leavened with humor and optimism as it is, that’s a sad topic.
- Some of the all-time great lines in literature are in this movie:
“Fill your hand, you sonuvabitch!” [Bridges' reading trounces Wayne's, I venture to say.]
“The love of decency does not abide in you.”
“I’ve grown old.” [Best part is the Chewbacca sigh that Bridges does right after he says it.]
“Time just gets away from us.”
“This is like women talking.”
The last one is how I plan to end most of my conversations from now on, by the way.
This is like women talking. Just watch this movie already.