True Grit opens with a Bible verse, a hymn and a long-winded setup that ends with the line: “You must pay for everything in this life. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” For those who’ve seen the original, or the trailers for this film, they know this is a revenge film, pure and simple. Then, why the religious statements? Why does the film start off more like a sermon than a story? What is it trying to say?
By the end, it’s clear the Coen Brothers are being their usual ironic selves, setting up one thing, delivering another and chuckling at the audience all along the way. Young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) might be an unusual instrument of vengeance, an bright young girl who insists on going off into the wild to kill her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). To this end, she hires the roughest, most debauched and backwards man in the count: Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) who decides to team up with the arrogant Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).
Like the other Coen Brothers’ films Bridges’ starred in (The Big Lebowski), True Grit is at its best when the three characters are simply hanging out, their incompatible character flaws clashing, popping back and forth some of the best written dialogue of the year. True Grit is most likely the funniest movie of the year perhaps even more so during its darker and more violent turns, a black comedy of the best kind.
The fine cast helps elevate its material even higher and while Damon, Bridges and Brolin are fantastic, it’s newcomer Haille Steinfeld that steals the show. It’s amazing to watch her out act the likes of Damon and Brolin with ease. She’s got more pep, confidence, audacity and strength in her performance than these two might have in their entire career. She even comes close to outshining Bridges, but since Bridges is being his usual self, it’s not quite fair to compare the two as actors.
While it’s fascinating to watch the characters and performances, the Coen Brothers seem content to leave the Western stuck back into its age of backwards thinking. Granted, Mattie is an atypical female character in any film genre, but racial stereotypes, misogyny and a binary sense of good and evil abound throughout the film, making True Grit a perplexing remake that isn’t actually interested in remaking anything.
It’s clear that the Coen Brothers made the film. There are the kinds of bizarre and outrageous characters you only see in their films, the oddly serious and preposterous types that lead to comedic gold. What other film would feature a doctor who traipses throughout the country wearing a bearskin and attempting to sell a dead body? But even these elements can’t hide how unoriginal and dated this story is.
In a vain attempt to reinterpret the original, bookends are added. Besides the fact they are narratively superfluous, they don’t actually change any of the understanding of the original film. In fact, the opening is completely contradictory to the typical Coen Brothers’ existential ending. Yes, once again, they are probably trying to be ironic, but within the actual meat of the film, the bookends offers little to the thematic arc of the film.
After the insightful, ambiguous and truly dark A Serious Man, I can’t help but think that True Grit might be the most intellectually stupid films the Coen Brothers have made. Even then, their stupidity is closer to brilliance than many of the great directors working today and it certainly isn’t in any way shape or form a bad film. The bookends of the film allude to more, but it’s all a façade for another easily digestible and highly effective piece of entertainment ripped from the archives of film history.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing