Mine eyes have seen the glory. The Coen brothers, smartass, shaggy-dog moralists, have stripped away even the bluff of their cynicism for their most straightforward, un-ironic film. Somehow, they ended up making one of their most meditative. Their update of True Grit continues their heightened commitment to moral reckoning of late, but the evocative (and deeply misunderstood) rumination of No Country for Old Men has given way to a message that is destined to be even more overlooked, precisely because it is hidden in plain sight, uncovered by the removal of irony.
Just as the filmmaking duo put Cormac McCarthy's anti-thriller on the screen with remarkable fealty, they adapt Charles Portis' novel faithfully, more faithfully than the 1969 film starring John Wayne. Portis' book is a light read, enjoyable but sprinkled with contradictions it never addresses. In sticking to the letter of the novel, the Coens transpose those issues and undermine them without turning the material against itself.
A revenge story, True Grit opens with an aural framing device as a middle-aged Mattie Ross remembers her father's death, the image filtering into clarity from a haze like an old but vivid memory being tapped. As the image sharpens, we see a man, Mattie's father, lying in a heap at the foot of his home as his murderer, a hired hand named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), rides away. The young Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) heads to town to retrieve her father's body and setlle his affairs, and from the onset she comes across as shrewd beyond her 14 years. A trader uses her dad's demise as an excuse to make a quick buck, but she manages to sell back the final items her father bought from the man as well as some extra material of dubious ownership in a way that weakens the man as much as his malaria.
But her hardness carries a darker edge. Tracking the sheriff to inquire about Chaney's location, she witnesses a hanging and is unmoved by the sight of three men dropping until their necks snap. When the sheriff tells her that Chaney is out of his jurisdiction and that the U.S. Marshals will have to deal with him now, Mattie asks which Marshal she could hire. Of the ones mentioned, she settles on Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whom the sheriff pointedly does not describe as the best man for the job but the meanest. Her drive impresses the washed-up drunk, as well as a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf a.k.a. "La Beef" (Matt Damon), who pursues Chaney for the murder of a state senator back in his home state. Mattie insists that Chaney be hanged for killing her father and not some mere senator, a sly political statement but also one that reveals the myopic fury of her thirst for revenge.
Jeff Bridges, who received his "sorry we didn't get this to you sooner" Oscar earlier in the year for his performance in Crazy Heart, is still so alive and visceral that the joy of seeing him at last rewarded -- even with something as meaningless as an Academy Award -- is tempered by the fact that it symbolizes an atonement rather than a recognition that he still does magnificent work. I joked with friends that, as much as I've come to admire John Wayne, Bridges represented a significant upgrade. Yet it is in his desire to move away from Wayne's performance that Bridges does one of his few "acting" jobs, where you can actually catch him at the tricks he normally pulls off without ever trying. Bridges' take on Cogburn is nearly unintelligible, not only from his intoxicated mumble but in the not-all-there look in his one good eye. Wayne may not have been half the actor Bridges is, but he oozed charisma, and Bridges tries his damnedest to make the audience root for him while still undermining his own charm at every turn. It's a taxing job, but one he pulls off, as ever, brilliantly.
As much as Bridges' Cogburn is a murderous scoundrel, Mattie's support for him mirror's the audience's own, and she becomes the voice of the revenge-movie crowd. Cogburn instantly proves himself a lout, his slurred growl generating a host of laughs in the courtroom but also revealing a man who can casually kill a man under protection of the law. Mattie delights in his sadism, looking impressed when, stalking some bandits who might lead them to Chaney, Cogburn plans to plug one in the back with a rifle slug as a grim warning shot to the other gang members. Rooster is Western lawlessness, charismatic enough that he wins over the crowd, and Mattie, but so disgusting that whatever romanticism might have resided in the old, fat man's belly got vomited up during one of his many drinking spells. And still Mattie adores him, her loyalty only faltering when his alcoholism interferes with his violence. She literally cheers the spectacle of LaBoeuf and Cogburn killing others but, as with all action audiences inured to atrocity against humans, at last manages to spare emotion for the brief abuse of an animal.
The Coens never force this point, never turn True Grit into the explicit anti-Western styling of Dead Man. Playing it straight, they allow us to identify with Mattie -- a simple matter given the magnetic pull Steinfeld exerts on the audience -- and never pull the rug out from under us. Like an old Roadrunner cartoon, they simply wait for us to look down and realize we've run with Mattie right off a cliff, and that by looking down we suddenly let gravity kick back in. That they filter the voice of a primarily male audience through a young girl is but another facet of the subtlety with which they give the viewers enough rope to hang themselves.
That commitment to straight Western storytelling peppered with implication extends to the film's racial commentary: at the hanging Mattie attends at the start of the film, three man stand on the gallows. The middle sobs and begs for forgiveness for minutes, another does not repent but gets his say, but the Native American sentenced to die has a bag thrown over his head immediately, silencing him before he can orate. Cogburn never uses any slurs, but when he viciously kicks two Choctaw children off a trading post porch, Bridges puts the racism of John Wayne's West on display as clearly as it can be seen back in town where every black character is a servant to whom even Mattie lightly condescends. (I found it incredibly interesting that the audience burst into its loudest laughter at this child abuse.)
Roger Deakins' cinematography stresses earthen tones, highlighting the sickly yellow of fire and the brown of wooden structures. Deakins' immaculate deep focus certainly does not recall Robert Altman's hazy McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but the color palette sure does. The Coens tell a more straightforward Western than Altman did, but both movies undercut the sense of individuality of the West and the moral code of law by starkly showing the true results of revenge and duels, where people end up dead and not a whole lot else can be said on the matter. Furthermore, both do not actually occur in the classic West -- McCabe is up in the Pacific Northwest, True Grit back in the novel's setting of Arkansas -- allowing for chilling snow flurries that only emphasize the cold remove of all the surrounding space.
I've learned not to underestimate the Coen brothers, who have made their fourth film in a row that breaks ranks from the previous entries even as they all share a loose thematic core. The comedy in the screenplay leans more toward the outright aburdist farce of Burn After Reading than the glacial chuckles of spiritual and existential doubt in A Serious Man. They hinder Damon with a lisp after an accident leaves La Boeuf's tongue half-severed, sabotaging every dramatic moment the actor gets with the mild comedy of his thick pronunciation. The usual odd touches litter the cast, from a kindly but screwy dentist-cum-mountain man Cogburn and Mattie encounter to a gibbering loon who rides with Tom's posse. But even these broad types play into the directors' statements on the aborrent bloodlust of the Old West: that gentle and amicable dentist casually mentions how much he'd like it if Cogburn could kill a man for him. This is a society that would rather see any innocent man hanged than a guilty one go free, if not to ensure that all culpable shall face punishment then to simply ensure some entertainment to break up the monotony. I laughed as much during True Grit as I have the Coens' finest comedies, but as with A Serious Man, those chuckles occasionally caught in the throat.
With respect to spoilers, all I will say about the ending of True Grit is that it elevates the Coens' penchant for anticlimactic endings into a direct commentary on the subject matter at hand. While the endings to other films may be frustratingly oblique and the Coens' joke on us, their carefully structuring here only reinforces the notion that revenge does not bring true satisfaction. The Mattie Ross who speaks to the audience in the framing device is a spinster, and the Coens use her aged voice to communicate from that start that, however this story plays out, it will not bring true closure; if it did, she would not feel the need to keep sharing it at age 40. The novel (and especially the 1969 film) support the quest for vengeance, but the Coens deconstruct that bloodlust by giving it to the audience, just as Quentin Tarantino savaged lingering fantasies of Jewish revenge by reveling in it for Inglourious Basterds. True Grit may be the most instantly enjoyable film the Coen brothers have made since, well, the last movie they made with Jeff Bridges, but hidden in that digestible entertainment is a devastating critique of most of the people lining up to see it.