Many claimed years ago that the Western genre was dead. It’s an easy argument to make and a tough one to refute because the sheer number of films has decreased substantially (and I’m talking about true Westerns, not simply films with Western elements like Serenity or Jonah Hex). But I would argue they aren’t dead; they’re just dormant. Along with 2007’s terrific 3:10 to Yuma and the Coen brothers’ newest, hotly anticipated film, True Grit, proof is offered up that there is still some life breathing in those old Western lungs.
True Grit, adapted from the 1968 novel by Charles Portis (which was previously adapted to film in 1969 by John Wayne), tells the story of little Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who is seeking out revenge against the man who murdered her father, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Despite her strong personality, she is too little and weak to get the job done herself, so she hires bounty hunter and ex-US marshal, Reuben Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help. However, a Texas lawman named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) is also on Chaney’s trail, hoping to bring him in for a separate crime he committed in his home state. Although they initially agree to work together, a disagreement sets La Boeuf off on his own and a race for Chaney’s head begins.
With the exception of Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers are yet to make a movie I dislike. With No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and the oft forgotten, but all the same terrific, Blood Simple (all of which they wrote the screenplays for as well), the two siblings are one of the strongest forces in Hollywood. True Grit only reaffirms that statement. It’s a rough, tough, mean and entertaining romp through the wastelands of the old West, a vision we rarely see in our modern cinematic society that is too busy looking forward to remember where it's been.
This is how movies used to be made. Unlike 3:10 to Yuma, which more or less caved into the pressures of a modern audience that calls for action packed extravaganzas, True Grit takes its time. It’s about the characters and story, not how high the body count can reach. The Coen brothers may not always seem to know what movies audiences will flock to, but they know what makes a movie good and that is all that matters.
And part of making a good movie, of course, is assembling a talented cast. Jeff Bridges, collaborating with the dynamic duo for the first time since 1998’s The Big Lebowski, gives an award worthy performance as Reuben Cogburn. What with this and the much anticipated Tron: Legacy, he’s having quite a week. Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Berry Pepper all show up to lend their considerable talents as well, the latter of whom is so good it almost makes me want to forgive his annoying performance in one of this week’s other (not nearly as good) releases, Casino Jack.
The weak standout is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who sometimes recites her lines as if she’s standing on a stage. While not a bad actress, she has a tough time working opposite Bridges and Damon. Whereas their dialogue flows naturally, hers is a bit stilted at times. She speaks with a matter-of-fact attitude, which suits her quick talking character, but there is a refusal to speak in contractions that brings the dialogue to a halt. Regardless of whether or not it was for authenticity’s sake, it didn’t work and became a major distraction.
That predicament isn’t limited only to Steinfeld, however; it’s a mass problem among every character. Contractions are used liberally, seemingly only when a line wouldn’t have been funny otherwise. This inconsistent approach is what bugged me the most about True Grit, but the wonderful direction, otherwise great performances and beautiful cinematography make it easy to forgive. This is the Coen brothers' best movie since No Country for Old Men. It's a must see.
True Grit receives 4/5