Since 2007’s Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers have reinvented themselves three times. This has become the story of their career. Since their debut in 1984 with Blood Simple, they have not repeated themselves a single time. While not always completely successful in their work, they at least produce something fresh and interesting each time with surprising, prolific speed. With their latest effort, True Grit, the Coen brothers create not only a very successful film but also one of their best.
True Grit tells the story of fourteen-year old Mattie Ross, played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who sets out to bring her father’s killer to justice. With the help of hired U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, Mattie sets out into the unsettled land of America to search for Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin. It is a straightforward western based on the novel by Charles Portis. While the story is straightforward, it is what they do with the material that makes this film distinct.
The hallmark of a Coen brothers’ film is the pitch-perfect casting, and True Grit is no exception. Steinfeld’s fantastic performance as the strong and intelligent Mattie Ross holds the film together, as the strange and unique character work elevates the film to another level. Each one of the supporting actors, even in the smallest role, seems completely unique while remaining realistic within the film. Bridges gives another iconic performance as the aging drunk U.S. Marshall, one which should not be ignored come Oscar season. Surprisingly, Matt Damon gives one of the most interesting performances in the film as a Texas lawman tagging along in search for Chaney.
One aspect of the film that is utterly refreshing is the role that Mattie Ross plays in the film, which is never helpless. She is a strong, intelligent young girl who, while remaining realistically young, is also the smartest character in the film. Where films like Twilight remain immensely popular among teen girls, they show a damaging depiction of how a girl should act, especially compared to the strong, young female figure shown in the character of Mattie Ross.
On a bad day, the Coen brothers’ films will feel as if they are trying too hard, while in one of their many successes the films feel just perfect. This is one of those cases where all the many pieces fall perfectly in line. Their direction in this film is less stylistically obvious than their other films, but it is this restraint that lets the brilliant dialogue breathe. It is easily one of their best scripts, which compared to their other work, is quite an impressive feat.
This restraint ends near the finale, during an extended horse riding scene, as the brothers employ some strange editing and cinematography techniques. While I have heard many complain about this sequence, it was one of my favourites in the film. It was completely different than the look of the rest of the film, but in a very strange way, it worked. Other than this scene, the cinematography is always held back, never showing off, however, it is also beautiful. Roger Deakins, the cinematographer on this film, does some of his best work especially during night scenes.
The Coen brothers have always been two of the best filmmakers working, however, with the prolific nature of their process, they have sometimes missed the mark. True Grit is not one of those films. It hits the mark in every department. Beautifully shot, exceptionally acted and wonderfully written, this film is no stranger to hyperbolic praise, however, it is always deserved.