You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another.
If ever there was an example of a bait and switch, True Grit is it.
The trailers for the Coen Brother’s remake True Grit made it look like a serious Western filled with character and danger. Even the title echoed a sentiment of a violent, hard-bitten revenge film with craggy rocks and even craggier faces. What’s surprising is True Grit is often as funny as it is violent,a film as straightforward and enjoyable as the Coen Brothers have made in some time.
There’s always been an eccentricity to Coen Brothers, whether it’s Intolerable Cruelty’s screwball nature or the strangeness of A Serious Man, their films don’t reveal much or explain the why, what or how. It just is, and it’s an approach that leaves their films open for debate. Hewing closer to No Country for Old Men than Burn after Reading, True Grit is weird, strange, compelling mix of Coen Bros. styles.
The story follows Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who seeks revenge for her father’s death. She’s young and wants the help of a Jeff Bridge’s federal marshal Rooster Cogburn. They’re joined by a Texas Ranger called LaBeouf (pronounced la-beef, played by Matt Damon), to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed Mattie’s father.
There’s something genuinely affecting in the relationships formed between these characters, and combined with the Coen’s sense of comedy, it’s a film that slyly subverts expectations.
Mattie Ross is a child who shouldn’t even be in the situation she’s in. Inexperienced and out of her depth, Steinfeld is excellent; exuding the brashness and desire to see her father’s killer strung up. Grit never forgets to remind the audience that she’s a child, whether it’s LaBeouf spanking her or when she puts on clothes that are too big for her. True Grit is very much Mattie’s story and Steinfeld’s performance.
Jeff Bridges plays a cantankerous curmudgeon, always drinking and unhappy with his affairs. At times he’s more at home in the wilderness than he living in civilisation and he and LaBeouf share more of the comedic exchanges (‘that is to say the sun was in your eyes…’) and Bridges’ choice to enunciate with indiscernible sentences are hilarious. The look on his face and the delivery of his dialogue when he says “I do not know this man” is priceless.
Matt Damon as LaBeouf has the least attractive character and the most thankless part – an arrogant officer with the utmost belief in his abilities. His arrogance makes him a great source of fun as he makes a fool out himself or has others make a fool out of him. Damon is dependable and when he gets the chance to talk he takes it.
The film is uncompromising in its depiction of violence. One scene at a cottage will make you reel at how impactful it is. The violence that punctuates the film is uncomfortable (deliberately so), stark and realistic, which grounds the film and its characters. It never revels in violence. Punishment really does come one way or another.
One of Coens more notable quirks revolves around language and its use and it’s no more evident here. It’s fast, often incomprehensible and can be distancing, often making it hard to get a foothold a scene when you’re not sure what’s being said.
The ending is likely to divide but it’s perfect for the film and purposefully underwhelming. It’s not out of the blue, though it does feel a touch anti-climatic and inconclusive but is fitting all the same with respect to the characters and the journey they go on.
What is True Grit about? There’s an element of loss of innocence with the Ross character. Themes of justice and violence abound, the eye for an eye view on punishment. There’s a nebulous view of justice in the film that Grit never comes down on one side – is it for judicial punishment or not? Perhaps that’s the lasting appeal of this Coen film. Its ability to linger an let you make up your own mind.
True Grit is a very good one with a deft hand for character and action. It’s remarkably well-done with everyone performing to the kind of levels expeced from a Coen brothers production. The dialogue can be impenetrable but it’s also wonderful (“Fill your hands you son of a bitch!”). Full of excellent performances, this is consistently enjoyable Western.