The Coen brothers, as both joint directors and writers, continue their march towards the cinematic mainstream with this highly accessible film. That can only be a good thing, allowing a wider audience to experience their gift for storytelling.
The brothers here remake or re-imagine the classic western “True Grit”, made famous by the iconic presence of John Wayne.
Each movie must be judged on it’s merits so lets leave 1969 in the past.
1880, the father of fourteen year old Mattie Ross (Steinfield) is callously killed by “no good” Tom Chaney (Coen regular Josh Brolin). Mattie hires local reprobate Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to hunt down Chaney to avenge her father. Shot down or hung, it makes little difference to the no nonsense Mattie.
Steinfield is a revelation as Mattie, tough speaking “with no varnish on her words”, her deconstruction of a local trader during their negotiations is a joy to watch. Sensitive, vulnerable and yet tough as old boots, the film simply would not work without her.
The cantankerous Cogburn, along with his beloved whisky, reluctantly takes Mattie on the trail, where she proves her worth. The pair joining forces with Texas ranger La Beouf (Damon), in the hunt for the missing fugitive.
This is a down and dirty western, attempting to portray the way of life in a more honest way. It’s rough, messy and life is cheap. No one helps anyone if there’s no money in it. The one exception to realism is a prevalence of “Hollywood teeth”, which does juxtapose with the realistic array of “tombstone teeth”, the splendid character “Lucky Ned” (Barry Pepper) possesses.
Characters speak slowly and in a roundabout poetic fashion, an approximation of a time when everything took, just that bit longer. Justice was enforced sporadically and generally to settle petty personal scores rather than founded on any legal direction, despite the presence of courtroom scenes.
Bridges gets to act drunk in his underwear again, following his Oscar winning turn in “Crazy Heart”. The screenplay sketches a character that is hard to like but allows the audience to warm to over time, Bridges makes very effective and enjoyable use of the freedom allowed to him.
The normally ultra urbane Damon, despite initial misgivings, looks and acts the part helped by his character being effectively a fish out of water, far from his usual hunting grounds.
“We have no rodeo clowns in Yell County”, as Mattie points out upon their first meeting. The subsequent screen chemistry between the three is enjoyable to watch.
Rooster, emotionally thawing visibly throughout the film, also gets some good lines which are delivered to perfection.
“Ground’s too hard. Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer. “
The film is simple enough tale, good bad and the grey that exists between the two. Everyone struggles and people die violently, with little ceremony, as was the case at the time. People mostly doing right by others if they can, but if inconvenient, well what’s a man to do.
This is not a showy film, there is no mysticism or characters being at one with their surroundings, see “Dances with Wolves”. However, the film is directed with an assured hand and most importantly does not take itself too seriously, a liberal sprinkling of humour keeps the linear story moving along and picks up pace nicely towards the end.
It is good to see the brothers have not completely left the slightly surreal, we have a character dressed head to foot as a bear, buying a dead body, “for two dental mirrors and a bottle of expectorant”, pure Coen.
Not as iconic as “Unforgiven” by which all such films need to be judged but well acted and displaying enough humour to pull the story through.
Recommended for all western fans and a solid slice of entertainment for those new to the genre, this is a great place to start.