Tuesday, January 18, 2011

True Grit

I should start this review with the disclaimer that I have never read Charles Portis' novel or seen its 1969 film adaptation starring John Wayne. With that said, I thought the Coen Brothers' True Grit was one of the best movies I saw in 2010.

True Grit is told from the perspective of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl attempting to track down her father's killer. As the film begins she tells us that "Nothing comes free in this life," and at the end she says, "Time just gets away from us." These maxims bookend a story that is appropriately matter-of-fact in its presentation. Despite what the trailers may have led you to believe, True Grit is neither a heroic western (like the John Wayne version) nor a poetic musing on the human history (like No Country For Old Men). It's actually much more similar to the Coen Brothers' absurdist comedy, Burn After Reading. There are moments of both heroism and horrifying violence but True Grit shows it all with a sardonic wit that takes similar pleasure in victory and tragedy alike. The result is a film that feels strangely and refreshingly realistic in its depiction of the "wild" west.

For a movie that is ostensibly about a manhunt, True Grit spends an awful lot of time showing people arguing about bargains. As one character memorably says, "I do not entertain hypotheticals, the world as it is is vexing enough," and indeed a good portion of the film is dedicated to the sorting out of facts. We see debates about everything from bullet trajectories to obscure legal concepts like replevin, and at all times the answer lies in the minutiae. Similarly detail oriented are the few occurrences of violence in the film, all of which are unflinchingly realistic and shown entirely onscreen. In a world where nothing is certain, True Grit makes it clear that the devil is most certainly in the details.

Yet in spite of this focus, the film is remarkably relativist in its morals. Characters talk about "the Law" a lot but rarely are we shown much in the way of justice. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is supposed to be a US Marshal, but he is accused of killing men in cold blood and admits to bank robbery; La Boeuf (Matt Damon) is a seemingly incompetent Texas Ranger who sexually harasses and physically assaults the 14 year old Ross. Despite their flaws, however, these men become heroic in the eyes of Ross and through her the audience: Rooster's irreverent attitude towards violence and death is the source of much laughter, as are La Boeuf's feeble attempts to be a knight in shining armour. Interestingly this benevolent characterization is also extended to the villainous "Lucky" Ned (Barry Pepper), who likewise charms the viewer through his interactions with Ross. Not so much that we don't cheer for Rooster in their inevitable duel, but enough to be noticeably unusual.

True Grit juxtaposes a story about its own details with a truly complex understanding of morality, and the effect of this mixture of elements is a film that feels true-to-life in a way few others have achieved. All of the characters are remarkably human in their strengths and flaws alike, and the story's detail-oriented telling makes it all the more believable. Even the climactic gun battle is shot so that it feels more like a documentary than a John Wayne movie, and the maxims that bookend the film make it clear that this sense of realism is exactly the point. True Grit tells us that life is sometimes cruel and always short but that in and of itself is no tragedy; the movie treats existence as a unrestricted mess that we all share with no value but what we ourselves make. This objective approach is what makes True Grit seem so real, so accurate in its portrayal of human interactions. As a result the film is amusing, horrifying, and uplifting all at the same time, and tells a story that is compelling for its very humanity.

The Coen Brothers' True Grit is a great cinematic achievement that should not be missed.


  1. Agreed.

    Few comparisons to the original:
    John Wayne > Jeff Bridges
    Wayne played this role after 20 years acting in Westerns. It was his craft and he was a master.

    Robert Duvall < Barry Pepper
    Pepper's presence was shorter than Duvall's but he made a bigger impact. Pepper's Ned looked, even felt, like a mean dirty thief. I thought I could smell the stink coming off the character, not just see it. Even more impressive since the original did a better job of setting Ned up as the villain.

    Glen Campbell < Matt Damon
    The Rhinestone Cowboy was there for the ladies. Damon can act. I still feel that there is something missing from this character. The new film was closer but I feel the book might reveal a fuller more interesting character.

  2. Mattie Ross is actually played by the newcomer Hailee Steinfeld...I think it's important to note that this great performance came from a 14-year-old. Dakota Fanning, eat your heart out!

  3. Ernie - It's funny you mention the fact that John Wayne was better because of his experience acting in westerns. I didn't have room to talk about it in the review, but I felt the film did some really interesting things with genre. It was by no means a traditional western, but at the same time it wasn't so concerned with the typical elements of the genre so as to be a revisionist western. I toyed with the idea of calling it a “post-revisionist western remake” in how it took a traditional western and reformulated it into something that almost abandoned the genre altogether. However, I decided not to write that due to size constraints. Also I don’t really know that much (read: anything) about western cinema and so any theory along those lines would just be me talking out my ass. Feel free to call me on my bullshit.

    Mirah – It’s true! I wanted to acknowledge her fantastic performance but just didn’t get it in there. Everyone involved did a great job, but Steinfeld in particular impressed me for coming out of nowhere to become one of the most memorable characters of the year. The scenes of her arguing with the horse dealer are a highlight of the movie