As a longtime fan of Joel and Ethan Coen, one of the things that I have always taken a special delight in is the love they have for language.
After all, it was a line of dialogue maybe five minutes into the first film of theirs that I saw, 1986’s “Raising Arizona,” where I fell in love with them: “Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” I still remember reading the script for “Miller’s Crossing” a few months before it came out and just reading and re-reading that opening monologue out loud, basking in the cascade of language. “The Big Lebowski” is like a ballet of profanity, every stammer and shouted swear a perfect punctuation for the unbalanced adventures of the Dude. “Fargo” makes high comedy of a regional accent, and nobody finds a more adorable way around a sentence than Marge Gunderson. And in their unproduced adaptation of “To The White Sea,” there’s an amazing monologue at the beginning, straight out of the James Dickey novel, that I could picture them cackling about as they wrote it.
That’s one of the things that makes them perfect to adapt the work of Charles Portis, and if someone were to ask what the key difference is between the John Wayne version of the story and this new interpretation, it is that the Coens have preserved the language of Portis. No… more than that… they have positively rolled around in it.
The result is one of the most crowd-pleasing films I think the Coens have ever made, accessible and simple and mythic and beautiful, and like the best Westerns, it contains a sadness that is innate to the period. This is probably the warmest film they’ve made since “Fargo,” and it’s a reminder of just how sincere and close to the surface the sentiment was in “Raising Arizona,” a film that always brings me to tears in its closing moments. “True Grit” is a beautiful movie in a very quiet, adult way, and yet it’s a film that I think young people could see because of the high adventure that underscores it all.
Hailee Steinfeld is the film’s big gamble, and it paid off. She’s a fantastic choice for Mattie Ross, the girl whose determination drives the entire venture. You have to believe that this little girl is capable of standing toe-to-toe with Marshal Cogburn and with Ranger La Boeuf, and Steinfeld is great. She seems to grow over the course of the journey, and that’s one of the things I love in the film… that sense of great classic American adventure. She embodies a spirit that Portis worked hard to define in his book, and it’s impressive how right she is for the movie.
In a way, I think of “True Grit” as a girl’s Wild West answer to “Huckleberry Finn,” a story that simply works as a coming of age journey with a striking, significant companion who in some way embodies the age that you’re writing about. Jim is a brilliant way to encapsulate the South that Twain wanted to capture, and Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn is a gorgeous shambling ode to the real cowboys and to the romantic misunderstanding of them as well. But you need someone you identify with, someone you take the journey with, to play off of this symbolic figure, and Mattie Ross is a rich and textured part for a young performer. Steinfeld carefully navigates Mattie’s evolving relationship with Cogburn and with the Texas Ranger La Boeuf, and there are choices she makes as an actor that are surprising and even deeply affecting at times. It’s a great debut performance.
And the big-name top-billed adult cast? Ridiculous. This is a case of hiring a cast you can hype, but a cast that also justifies the hype. Expectations have never been bigger for Jeff Bridges, which is interesting to watch. I’ve been a fan of his my entire film fan life, and he’s the first actor I ever met, the first actor I ever watched work up close. I was thirteen at the time, and Bridges had no ego about talking about what he was doing. That was the set of “Starman,” a film he was Oscar-nominated for, and even after that, things seem to run really hot or really cold for Bridges in terms of the mainstream. I love the Jeff Bridges who is an exposed raw nerve, the guy from films like “The Fisher King” or “Fearless,” the guy whose pain is so big that you almost can’t look at it. I also love the shaggy charming hippie Bridges, made most famous in his work as “The Dude,” but a part of his repertoire since at least the ’76 version of “King Kong.” With Cogburn, Bridges brings some of all of his various personalities to the table, and it’s a rich, funny, noble performance. Cogburn knows he’s a mess, but he also knows that he deserves respect when he’s doing the thing he does best, and the moments in the film where Cogburn’s deadliest side is revealed are chilling because it’s obvious… that’s the “real” Cogburn, the one he drinks to smother the rest of the time. He is a man who has violence stamped into his DNA, who solves problems by killing them, and no matter how real his bond that develops with Mattie Ross, that violence is always right there, ready to access if needed. Those are the men who were able to grow old in the West. Portis didn’t go overboard in suggesting the toll that Cogburn had paid for all the blood he spilled, but he suggested it, and Bridges plays haunted here without overselling it.
Matt Damon finds the absurdity in Texas Ranger La Boeuf without robbing him of his dignity or his genuine ability, as well, and it’s an impressive balancing act. There are scenes here that are very funny, bordering on broad, but always with a reality between Damon and Bridges and Steinfeld that makes it work. Josh Brolin redeems himself completely for “Jonah Hex” with his flat-out hilarious turn as Tom Chaney, the man who Mattie Ross is chasing for killing her father. We don’t see that murder happen, and for most of the movie, Tom Chaney is a name, a boogeyman who is built up as a terrifying opponent to face. The way Brolin plays him once he finally shows up is perhaps the finest joke of the film, and a wicked Coens touch. It’s the character Portis wrote, no doubt about it, but there are some choices Brolin makes, like his voice, that are really brash. Playing Ned Pepper, Barry Pepper is nearly unrecognizable, and he brings real menace to his short turn.
Roger Deakins shooting a western is one of those things that always sounds like a good idea, and he crushes it as usual. It’s not a postcard, but a vibrant, dirty, earthy movie that feels worn around the edges, which is exactly as it should be. There’s a washed-out quality to some of the palette that makes things feel dusty, and the film’s got a great authentic feel in terms of production design. I’m picky about how the old west is handled onscreen, and “Grit” does it beautifully. I feel like Scott Rudin has become the best enabler that the Coens have ever worked with, and the last few years have been a new level of maturity and control for them as filmmakers and artists.
I think even people who love the original film are going to find room in their hearts for this new version, and for people who don’t know the original, this is going to be a revelation. Every bit of humor, terror, and heart that is contained in the Portis book made it into the film, and that’s a remarkable thing. My birthday is May 26, the same day as John Wayne’s birthday. My dad is a huge John Wayne fan, and growing up, I was definitely exposed to most of his iconic work early, and repeatedly. My own understanding of the way Westerns evolved from the early days of, say, “Stagecoach” or something like “Haunted Gold” to the point where they basically dried up, right around the time “True Grit” was released, was defined in large part by my exposure to Wayne’s films, which seemed to be milestones for every seismic shift in the genre. With “True Grit,” I’ve always felt that the film is about John Wayne as much as it’s about anything else, and I don’t mean Cogburn. I think the film is a last easy lap around the bases for Wayne, and it’s no accident he won the Oscar. It’s a great story, and the Henry Hathaway film certainly has plenty of merits beyond just Wayne’s work. But I don’t think it’s any contest at all… for me, this new version is the authoritative adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis.
But it’s the Coens. I expected nothing less.
“True Grit” opens in theaters everywhere on Christmas Day.