The Coens’ no-frills ‘True Grit’ hearkens to western heyday

Posted by · 10:00 am · December 1st, 2010

I’ve seen the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” twice now, and it’s not because the film is some “Inception”-like, mind-bending narrative maze. Quite the opposite, actually. I saddled up to it a second time yesterday morning because I wasn’t quite anticipating what I got the first time around and I wanted to consider it further knowing what it was.

You see, this isn’t really “a Coen brothers film” to me. Outside of an opening act bathed in their usual trappings, the film feels almost anonymous, lacking the fingerprint stirringly present in each and every one of their efforts. And it’s all very much by design, by the way.

“True Grit,” in its second screen iteration, is a classic western cut from traditional cloth. With its wide vistas, simple narrative and focus on character dynamics (as well as a handful of unrefined horse-back riding effects shots), it’s fair to say it bears more of a resemblance to the work of Anthony Mann, John Ford and Budd Boetticher than it does that of the Coens. The film isn’t focused on being as tight and complete as most of their films, and indeed, inchoate was very much a goal here.

I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting a style exercise, something that would allow for Roger Deakins to sink his teeth into the scenery and come away with some of the most inspiring images he has ever captured. I was expecting theme to noticeably and boldly course through the mise en scène as it craftily does in every Coen enterprise from “Blood Simple” through “A Serious Man.”

But that lack of artistic intrusion is ultimately the film’s virtue. This is a throwback, and a reminder that the western need not necessarily function as progressive storytelling (a notion that would have delighted late author Robert Parker). It’s very much about time, place and character, and all else need defer to that and fade.

These particulars are filtered through the vision and language of Charles Portis, whose novel seems tailor-made for Coen interest with its mundane dialogue and somewhat vacant thematic canvas. As regards the former, I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy while reading it over the summer. But unlike “No Country for Old Men,” which was adapted with fussy visual swagger, “True Grit” is tackled in a straight-forward manner, allowing for the players and their actions to solely convey the experience.

In that light, perhaps it is very much a Coen film after all. What they exceed at is perfectly casting their films, knowing what they want from their actors (something generally quite unique, which is what makes them unique as filmmakers) and providing a visually interesting space for them to perform.

This has lead to countless memorable walk-ons over the years, whether it’s Steve Park in “Fargo,” Stephen Root in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” Gene Jones in “No Country For Old Men,” Amy Landecker in “A Serious Man,” the list is endless. And we can add the likes of Joe Stevens, Ed Corbin and, most certainly, Dakin Matthews to that list now.

Additionally on the cast’s periphery, Josh Brolin brings an odd energy to outlaw Tom Chaney while Barry Pepper is doing his best Robert Duvall impression in the “Lucky” Ned Pepper role Duvall originated. But the film is mainly focused on a carefully assembled trio in Jeff Bridges (as ornery U.S. Marshal Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn), Matt Damon (as prideful Texas Ranger La Boeuf) and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (as headstrong vengeance seeker Mattie Ross). And what a delight they are, fully immersed in their characters at every turn.

The film opens with a calm and beautiful tracking shot depicting the fallout of the tale’s inciting incident (the murder of Mattie’s father, Frank Ross) with Portis’s words laid over top. This breaks from the novel (and Henry Hathaway’s original film) by disregarding the opportunity to get to know Frank early on, and it’s probably better for it, thrusting Mattie even further to the front as the driving element of the narrative.

And in Steinfeld, a star is born. The Coens exhaustively auditioned countless young girls for the role and they turned up a real gem here. Steinfeld delicately plays off of stalwart steadfastness, pent-up mourning and even awakening romantic longing on the way to crafting a completely realized character.

(Which brings me to an aside.  Paramount’s official Oscar position on this performance is supporting.  That’s where it will be campaigned, and I gather that it has to do with it being presumptuous to campaign a young actress’s debut performance as a lead. My opinion: nonsense.  This is a performance worthy and deserving of a lead actress nomination.  That having been said, I don’t know who else could win in the supporting actress category, so perhaps the studio is seizing an opportunity that Sony Pictures Classics has ignored with Lesley Manville.)

Bridges, meanwhile, gets under Cogburn’s skin more fully, dare I say it, than John Wayne in the original adaptation (the role that won The Duke his Oscar). And while his chemistry with Steinfeld is vibrant and authentic, the waters are never muddied by shoehorning inauthentic fatherly relationship or connectivity dynamics.

And Damon has, quite simply and perhaps even quietly, developed into one of the finest actors of his generation. He isn’t doing anything particularly sensational here, but that is rather the point of his performance’s brilliance. It’s in the eyes, the tambour in his voice at the whose-is-bigger goading of Bridges’s Cogburn, and the otherwise stoic pride of a confidant lawman.

The Coens’ approach to the film also gives way to a period authenticity that must be respected. Jess Gonchor’s production design and specifically Nancy Haigh’s set decoration is of the highest quality and precision. Mary Zophres’s costume design gives the film an identity unto itself in the canon of western cinema. Deakins’s camerawork gracefully captures the landscape while the hair and makeup serves each character fully and uniquely.

Most impressive, though, might be Carter Burwell’s humble contribution as composer. His themes soar and trickle with equal measure and have remained in my head since I first saw the film.  They are also nicely balanced with crisp effects into a sound mix that becomes part of the experience.  (There is, however, some discussion as to whether the reliance on hymns of the period might disqualify the score for Oscar consideration, but it is nevertheless perfectly suited to the film.)

It wasn’t my intention to go on so long here, but “True Grit” has proved to be a bit of discovery for me over the last couple of days, and I don’t know how to convey my thoughts on it without inviting you into that discovery process. It’s a warm and welcome addition to a vital genre that couldn’t ask for better torch bearers than the Coens and producer Scott Rudin, and one can only hope it helps keep the embers stoked on an art form consistently endangered.

[Photo: Paramount Pictures]

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85 responses so far

  • 1 12-01-2010 at 1:00 pm

    Roy said...

    Very nice review, Kris. It’s raised my already high expectations.

    Simply put, can you see the Academy voting for it as Best Picture over the King’s Speech or not?

  • 2 12-01-2010 at 1:05 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    The remake thing will, I think, hurt it for the win.

  • 3 12-01-2010 at 1:10 pm

    Roy said...

    Do you mean being a remake, or being a remake of such a regarded film? (I presume it’s well-regarded..purely on the basis of it’s oscar win, but maybe not)

    My feeling on the Departed winning despite being a remake was that it was Scorsese’s time, the original wasn’t that well known (certainly nothing on the level of True Grit), and, well, the Academy just liked the movie a lot.

    I still see it as King’s Speech to lose, but it’s nice to have a horse race.

  • 4 12-01-2010 at 1:17 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    There are too many AMPAS members who love The Duke too much to ever let this win.

  • 5 12-01-2010 at 1:24 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    I haven’t seen the original True Grit yet, and I’m not sure if I should bother doing so before I see the Coens’ version. But I have a hard time believing that John Wayne is really that great in it. I like very realistic acting, which is part of why I’m not a big theater buff, and many of the older actors tended to deliver their lines and carry themselves in a way that made it very clear they were performers. Of course, some of my favorite films are old ones, but I just haven’t seen much of John Wayne at all…basically just The Searchers and maybe one or two others I’m forgetting at the moment.

  • 6 12-01-2010 at 1:29 pm

    JJ1 said...

    If I’m being honest ….. no one hit me ….. I thought the John Wayne win was totally lifetime acheivement. I don’t think he was particularly great in that role, at all.

  • 7 12-01-2010 at 1:32 pm

    JJ1 said...

    If I’m being honest ….. no one hit me ….. I thought the John Wayne win was totally lifetime achievement. I don’t think he was particularly great in that role, at all.

    John Wayne had a magnetic, iconic screen presence. My mom LOVED him. But a great “actor”? He never was.

  • 8 12-01-2010 at 1:40 pm

    JJ1 said...

    sorry for the double

  • 9 12-01-2010 at 1:54 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    at least Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture that year

  • 10 12-01-2010 at 1:58 pm

    amanda said...

    Wells totally hated it..he seems so cranky about it.

    and can we talk about how underrated Matt Damon is for a second? He never gets the credit as an actor that he deserves. I think it is mostly due to the fact he is a very subtle actor and doesn’t do over the top, so he tends to get overlooked. Even when kicking ass as Bourne he is quiet.

  • 11 12-01-2010 at 2:25 pm

    El Rocho said...

    Cannot wait. Good Westerns are few and far between. I did enjoy Appalooza, though. Ed Harris is a capable director.
    And Carter Burwell is a very underrated composer.

  • 12 12-01-2010 at 2:40 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    I loved Appalooza too. Perry Farrell looks awesome in spurs.

  • 13 12-01-2010 at 3:05 pm

    Marc R. said...

    i only hope that Deakins finally wins the Oscar so that we can all move on w/ our lives

  • 14 12-01-2010 at 3:24 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    Marc R:

    I feel the same way about jennifer love-hewitt appearing topless

    in an adult feature

    for really sick adults

  • 15 12-01-2010 at 3:24 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    i now realize that you can’t leave a big gap between your lines of text, even if you want to


  • 16 12-01-2010 at 3:29 pm

    DylanS said...

    On the note of Deakins. Kris, I certainly agree with you in that after 8 nominations, Deakins will finally win for his work here, but your review seems to suggest that his work here isn’t particularly special. Do you believe his winning would be a pure lifetime achievment or is this actually some of the best cinematography this year and career work for him?

  • 17 12-01-2010 at 3:35 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Good question, DylanS

  • 18 12-01-2010 at 3:57 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Dylan: It’s unremarkable, and again, by design. And in fact, the interiors are more interesting visually than the exteriors. But it’s still pretty, if only because of the landscape.

  • 19 12-01-2010 at 3:58 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    One of the shots will make it to my year-end collective, though.

  • 20 12-01-2010 at 4:01 pm

    DylanS said...

    It looked so visually impressive from the trailers, that’s strange. I guess it was my love of landscape photography.

  • 21 12-01-2010 at 6:47 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    Most people don’t know the difference between great cinematography and pretty images, so it doesn’t matter. Even I don’t know what’s what…and my wife’s been cheating on me with Vittorio Storaro for years.

  • 22 12-01-2010 at 7:12 pm

    Jake g said...

    Kris!You never get to the point in this review? Did you like or not like it! It seems like you didn’t like it but your going to wait to see if critics like this film, and if they like it then your going to like it!

  • 23 12-01-2010 at 8:13 pm

    JJ1 said...

    It seems to me that Kris liked it a lot, but needed 2 viewings to firm up a definitive opinion on things. It doesn’t sound like a gamechanger to me (and most critics), but a very good film; a solid homage to a dying genre with great performances in it. No?

  • 24 12-01-2010 at 9:24 pm

    Bryan said...

    It’s true that John Wayne was more of an icon that wasn’t thought of as a great actor, but he was a good actor. Some of his performances were actually great, though. My favorite is actually his final film, “The Shootist.” His part in “True Grit” is probably not the best part he ever played, but I thought he was fine in it. Bridges, already an Oscar winner, is viewed differently than Wayne was in his time. However, people forget that Wayne was nominated 20 years prior to his win, for “The Sands of Iwo Jima.” He should have been nominated for “The Quiet Man” or “The Shootist.” Some think he could have been nominated for “The Cowboys.” So while he wasn’t the Laurence Olivier of Westerns, he became a somewhat respected actor as well as a popular star.

  • 25 12-01-2010 at 11:51 pm

    Katsat said...

    Thanks for your thoughtful review. I enjoyed reading it, but I was irritated that both you and Anne Thompson (today, at least) don’t seem to know that “led” is not spelled “lead.”

  • 26 12-01-2010 at 11:56 pm

    Katsat said...

    Thanks for your thoughtful, insightful review. I enjoyed reading it, but I was irritated that both you and Anne Thompson (today, at least) don’t seem to know that “led” is not spelled “lead.”

  • 27 12-02-2010 at 6:15 am

    M.Harris said...

    It’s pretty obvious to me; as to what Kris thought about the movie.

    The review reminds me of the reviews that are written in The New York Times or Villige Voice-where you have to use comprehend a little bit more.

    No grade needed here.

  • 28 12-02-2010 at 6:35 am

    Maxim said...

    “Wells totally hated it..he seems so cranky about it.”

    And Harry Knowles called it year’s best. And both opinions are worthless.

    And Wells didn’t hate it. He’s always cranky too.

  • 29 12-02-2010 at 12:18 pm

    Brian said...

    I discovered the Portis book this fall. What a pleasure to read that — and what a pleasure to read this review. On to 12/22!

  • 30 12-02-2010 at 12:20 pm

    Brian said...

    @ Jake g: He likes it.

  • 31 12-03-2010 at 10:12 pm

    David Hammon Schwartz said...

    I can’t wait to see the new TRUE GRIT. Kim Darbys’ performance in the original TRUE GRIT will be hard to top! Still looking for SNAKEBIT, TEXAS, a western graphic novel floating around the internet somewhere..

  • 32 12-04-2010 at 10:51 am

    JR said...

    I second Amanda. I’ve long felt that Damon is truly under-rated. Yes, you rarely see him “act,” and he’s just as fine in prestige films as he is on SNL and 30 Rock. He reminds a lot of Paul Newman – personally and professionally, a man of great intelligence and, most of all, integrity.