by Sean Collins-Smith
True Grit is one of those films that causes filmgoers to quip “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”.
It’s oft said, probably too much.
But in this instance, they’d be right.
At the heart of True Grit is a vengeance tale. We’ve had plenty of those, right? Not like this, baby.
Where to start? You’ve got a brainy, hard-as-nails protagonist who not only happens to be young, but is also a woman. She isn’t snarky or annoying – she’s mature, intelligent, and 3 steps ahead of absolutely everybody.
Next up you’ve got plenty of characters running around with guns – kind of a mainstay in Hollywood today – yet their use isn’t glorified or gratuitous. In fact, there are more quiet moments in Grit than there are gunfights, and the steady pace gives every actor plenty of time to show their chops.
The most obvious of these might be Jeff Bridges. Someone opined to me that in the original True Grit (1969), John Wayne wasn’t playing Rooster Cogburn, he was playing John Wayne. Well in this remake, written and directed to quirky perfection by the Coen brothers, Jeff Bridges completely sheds his persona, embodying Rooster Cogburn to perfection. His incessant mumbling coupled with fantastic makeup (seriously, he looks and, one can imagine, smells like shit) make him a dead ringer for, as one villain quips, “a one-eyed fat man”.
But perhaps the greatest revelation here is the strong-willed Mattie Ross, played with astute confidence by Hailee Steinfeld. She might be the most instantly likable child actor since Haley Joel Osmont in The Sixth Sense (both named Haley…coincidence? I think not!!!). And her role is arguably more complex: she spouts Aaron Sorkin-esque lines of dialogue that fly by at a mile a minute, lines which mirror the language of the Old West. Yet through it all, she captivates with a wonderfully fiery personality which catches nearly everyone she runs into off guard.
It’s the most understated and brilliant female performance of the year.
If you need more of a reason to see True Grit, let’s mention the Coens. Their works have always dabbled (and sometimes downright soaked themselves) in Death and All His Friends, and Grit is no exception. Nearly everywhere Mattie goes Death follows, but it’s less of the Angel of Death motif that brought morbidity to No Country for Old Men and more of a byproduct of the genre. In the movie’s entirety, Mattie sees four men hanged, sleeps in a funeral home with four corpses, and watches Cogburn kill maybe a dozen more. I’d say she grows up fast, but that really isn’t it; she’s already grown by the time we start the film. (She has to be – her father is killed before it begins. Yet more death, right?)
The music in True Grit is admirably low key, as the Coen brothers opt more for an ancient sounding piano medley throughout the film. Old style hymns like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” are sprinkled precipitously throughout, lending more meaning and catharsis than any ten rousing drumbeats or orchestral numbers. “Everlasting Arms”, especially, feels apt as Cogburn, carrying Mattie to safety, collapses out of sheer exhaustion. (This also leads to a humorous juxtaposition: in the moments before he begins carrying, they’re on a horse who is himself becoming exhausted. It drops to the ground, nearly dead, and Rooster takes his place, huffing/whinnying all the way home).
One of the most exceptional things I think the Coens do is represent religion in a more optimistic light. Whether they explore the atheistic qualities of George Clooney in O, Brother Where Art Thou? or their own representation of the Book of Job in A Serious Man, the Coens have displayed a deft ability to convey the meaning of Death, Religion, and other Serious Things a lot of people simply don’t desire or feel the need to talk about. Grit, with it’s female character seeking righteous vengeance (Hell hath no fury, correct?) and gospel overtones, begins with a quote from Scripture and ends with a female choir singing a hymn. It’s utterly inescapable, but it’s also fittingly old school. These are skillful directors living in modern times who routinely inject pre-modern ingredients into their work.
Consider this: True Grit has death and gunplay aplenty, but never once do we get a taste of shaky cam action or nausea-inducing cuts. Instead, we get wide-angle shots from the masterful eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James) and perfect character profiles placed dead center in the frame. The opening shot might be one of the most beautiful you’ve seen: snow falls endlessly as a small but bright streak of light reveals a dead body lying on the ground. It’s a purposefully paced opening complete with a fade in and a fade out, with nary a cut to be found. Only Mattie’s narration breaks the silence.
Though not as dreary as No Country for Old Men, True Grit is a successful foray into the realm of the traditional western for the Coen brothers. Their quirkiness and even hand shine throughout the film, and if we’re lucky enough, we’ll see them, Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld at the Academy Awards early next year.
I give True Grit 4 1/2 stars out of 5