REVIEW: True Grit

110 Minutes // USA // Paramount Pictures

directed and written by Ethan & Joel Coen
Thursday, December 16th. 2010 – Regal Tigard 11
starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges & Matt Damon

Four years ago, Ethan and Joel Coen took cinema by storm with No Country for Old Men – a film many advocated for its reinvention of the western genre. With True Grit, the Coens’ head west once again, but this time without the intention of delivering a timeless, genre-reviving feature, but instead place their ambition aside in crafting their most conventional film in decades. Where their Best Picture winner of 2007 was a contemporary, philosophically flooded, unnervingly lurching, sardonically humorous film where characters represent ideas that claim God as false, their latest is sincerely located in the olde west, emblematically sparse, amicably formulaic with accessible comedy and one congenially Christian idea representing its characters. Essentially No Country for Old Men’s antithesis, yet nearly as great. Although mostly derivative and lacking the same enthusiasm towards nihilism that they’ve founded their auteur status on, True Grit isn’t a representation of the Coen brothers’ artistry, but rather a demonstration in their versatility done in a surprisingly ordinary way: by being completely, if efficiently, ordinary.

Over the years – or more specifically, the last four – Ethan and Joel Coen have fancied themselves the best religious conversationalists in contemporary cinema. With the aforementioned No Country for Old Men preaching this world to be a Godless one where evil walks freely and A Serious Man unveiling God to be vengeful, you’d never anticipate them to fashion one of the more virtuous and fair depictions of a Catholic world, but they do in this – a film that firmly places God in the heart of its protagonist, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who sees her through her journey and permanently punishes her for her sin. Here, God isn’t false or cruel, but understanding, if administrative. In turn, this Godliness provides the story with a geniality that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from a story about three people hunting a man to possess.

After a telling opening scene where Mattie Ross indirectly states that she survives the story we’re about to watch, we see her as a teenager trying her hardest to balance her family’s finances. They weren’t rich before the death of their father/husband, and now that the breadwinner of the household is out of the equation, Mattie takes it among herself to fix the problem. In two scenes blistered by quick-tongued exchanges with a stable owner, Mattie proves her strength and independent mind. In the first scene, one where she depicts how a trial would favor her over the proprietor, mouths will drop in awe at the wisdom the girl possesses. In the second, those same mouths will snicker at the petrification that immediately manifests in that same proprietor when his ears are once more subject to Hattie’s bartering – a show of how resonating this little girl’s first impression usually is.

However, the reaction Hattie draws from Emmett Quincy isn’t hardly comparable to the one Steinfeld drew from me – who, at twelve, has given cinema-goers the most exemplary display of female strength in 2010. Not to mention how naturally she exposes the innocence beneath her intense front at every unburdening opportunity or her sharp comedic timing that puts her against Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy as the Coens’ most dynamic leading lady.

Still, Steinfeld’s intelligent and affected performance isn’t one of pure independence. As an actress she is dialed down considerably due to her lack of experience, but the dynamic ensemble around her helps drown out her meekness and accentuates her strength, With Jeff Bridges crayoning himself as Rooster Cogburn, the liquored-up curmudgeon Mattie hires to hunt down the man who murdered her father and Matt Damon veiling LaBoeuf’s shame through hilariously excessive pride, Steinfeld is given two of the best to build esteem around; with their reactions being indicative of their worth as well. A mysterious Damon more so than an animated Bridges, but both are considerably good given how audience pandering and emotionally vague their roles are – which happens to be more detrimental to the film than it sounds.

One of the greatest qualities the Coen brothers possess is how prone they are to playing fast and loose with the lives of their characters. They’re not afraid of killing off their protagonist before the third act, of burying their biggest name midway into their feature, or of implying the extinction of all their main characters in an ambiguous final frame. Here, this quality is almost entirely mitigated for two reasons. The first being the omniscient narration which indirectly says Mattie survives the journey we’re about to watch. The second being the string of inconsequence that holds the film together. With humor-centric arguments that don’t shatter the trio, but instead keep them from achieving harmony and other convivialities there is no daunting atmosphere to obscure the narrative’s (obvious) path.

One of the few likenesses True Grit has to other films by Ethan and Joel is with its reoccurring theme – this one being established in the opening scene with a fractured proverb from the Bible: “the wicked flee when none pursueth”. This quote is, in turns, used to establish the paranoia of criminals, iterate that an afflicted conscience is the most ruthless prosecution humanity can be subject to and reapportioned to reveal the melancholic empathy of mankind — but especially, and most profoundly, the latter – with the scene where a physically hurt, but emotionally bruised LaBoeuf leaves the trio, dimensionalizing the character with an abyss-like undercurrent in the greatest advantage the interpretable quote affords the feature.

The quote also downplays the contrast between good and evil by giving both heroes and villains common ground.

Without the rampant existentialism expressed through anticlimactic deaths or the feeling of deep sadness that comes with existence-based humor, the Coens struggle to find places to shove their trademark philosophical ramblings. Apart from the subtext the proverb provides, it’s only through tertiary characters that the Coen brothers get to say anything about how man functions. And for the most part, these small encounters double as overly eccentric jokes that severely diminish the meaning behind them. In fact, it is only when we see the manic sadness of Tom Chaney does True Grit concurrently display a palpable plot point, as well as communicating the humanity and even tragedy behind being a villain. What the Coen brothers do with Josh Brolin in a scene that spans no longer than a minute turns this entire feature around – propositioning us to reevaluate a man we believed to be absolutely monstrous for roughly 90 minutes. Is he bad? Of course he is, but like his turn in Milk,  Brolin vividly expresses the sympathetic backstory of a man who has committed treacherous crimes – compelling viewers to forget superfluously distinguishing between good and evil and to instead try to understand the acts that men pursue.

Roger Deakins reprises his role as Ethan and Joel’s finest collaborator; this time equipping the directors’ with a decadently poetic backdrop that significantly enhances the dramatic importance. You will most appreciate Deakins’ influence on True Grit in what is the most lyrically directed scene of the year: when LaBoeuf is swarmed by Ned Pepper’s associates.

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