The Coen brothers haven’t so much pushed their boundaries in recent years as they have cycled through the various genres they have tinkered with throughout their career, as if making a conscious decision to hone in and perfect their distinctive approaches to each. There was the philosophical chase movie No Country for Old Men, the witty slapstick Burn After Reading and the apocalyptic black comedy A Serious Man, all of which contain echoes of previous works like Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy and Barton Fink but purify their approach. Their new film, True Grit, embraces the Western – a genre that inflects almost all of their work in one way or another – and streamlines it to an almost absurd extent. It’s a straight-and-arrow revenge movie set in wild Arkansas that’s uncompromisingly, even stubbornly, traditional. They have taken the most basic ingredients of a revenge plot – a killer, an avenger and a pursuit – and have refused to complicate them, resulting in a film that’s an utter joy to watch even if it fails to deliver the nuances and ambiguities of, say, No Country.
Jeff Bridges returns to the Coens as Rooster Cogburn, an irresponsible U.S. Marshal who’s as much of an unintelligible drunkard as he is a ruthless killer, two facets of his personality made pretty clear in an early scene in a smoky courtroom where, ludicrously, he mumbles half-answers to a judge’s incessant questions. It’s a role that may outlast even his earlier turn as The Dude in The Big Lebowski in terms of the sheer abundance of memorable moments when his snarl, his gait and his plain demeanor provoke hilarity. Hell, with all his inebriated antics (the pinnacle being a hilariously cocky attempt to shoot down falling cornbread), Bridges is probably 95% of the reason why True Grit is as unexpectedly funny as it is. But the emotional core of the film is Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a potentially pre-pubescent girl who nonetheless harbors all of the respectable qualities Rooster lacks; she’s well-spoken, resourceful, and intensely devoted to locating Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the killer of her father who has since dispersed into the Indian Nations.
The first twenty to thirty minutes of the film are rather meandering exposition, a time when the Coens’ penchant for circular, fluffy dialogue comes to the fore and ultimately when the mechanics of their storytelling are made transparent (one particular scene in which Mattie argues with the owner of her father’s horse seems designed solely to illuminate the main character’s perseverance, and, conveniently, the brothers’ wit too). Fittingly, it’s not until the story navigates away from civilization and into uncharted territory that it opens itself up and features its greatest scenes, where both Mattie’s naive confidence and Rooster’s patriarchal abilities are challenged. Truth be told, Rooster’s not prepared – and doesn’t want to be prepared – to supervise the safety of a young girl in the barbaric Indian Nations, but Mattie’s merciless drive to see to the death of her father’s murderer causes her to overthrow Rooster’s wish for a solo mission. What’s more, a laughably conceited Texas Ranger (a grizzled, mustachioed Matt Damon) named LaBoeuf (phonetically “LaBeef”) joins the hunt for Chaney, in his case for a reward back in Texas. Uniting the three is bloodlust, even if the rewards reaped are purely monetary or, in Mattie’s case, a familial retribution that is much deeper. The film doesn’t contain any drastic thematic “lessons”, but certainly among the subtler, more suggestive undercurrents is the extent to which any of their “reasons” for the punishment of Chaney are truly justifiable, whether legally, morally or ideologically.
When the Coens visually introduce the older Mattie at the end of the film – as opposed to her sonic introduction via voice-over in the moody opening shot – the suggestion, as she trudges off into a bleak emptiness in the final shot, is that violent revenge is incapable of producing long-term satisfaction. This notion is echoed by the structure of the plot, which pits Mattie, Rooster and LaBoeuf in a long, challenging and seemingly never-ending pursuit and finally renders the actual scene of revenge in a rather brusque, “unsatisfying” manner. As if to immediately trigger this idea, the Coens barely reveal the dead body of Chaney when he is shot with a rifle, focusing instead on the small Mattie as she is hurled backwards by the force of the gun into a cavernous hole in the ground where a pack of snakes emerge from the torso of a skeleton. It’s like a punishment delivered from on high, while Rooster’s subsequent cutting and sucking from her hand where a snake bit it (which removes the farcical quality of an earlier, similar scene of Rooster violently pulling out LaBoeuf’s tooth) seems to have an almost cosmic sense of karma. True Grit ‘s concluding twenty minutes possess an iconic mournfulness missing from the rest of the film, climaxing in a poetic collage of superimpositions of Rooster carrying Mattie home on a fatigued horse that obliquely recalls F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.
What also becomes clear in this slow finale is an unusual anomaly for the Coens: the feeling of them trying to wrap things up triumphantly, to make the film as “complete” as possible in a dramatic sense. Rooster’s reversal of character from nihilistic prick to unexpectedly empathetic hero is something like the story of the Coens’ metamorphosis for this film, shaking off the chaos, discursiveness, and deliberate storytelling decrescendos that mark most of their work to deliver a clean tale that feels more died-in-the-wool than wholly postmodern. Of course, there are still the Coen tics (the stray absurdity of a stubby outlaw who makes animal noises or a cowboy garbed in bearskin), but one senses them fully embracing the shaggy traditionalism of their source novel and the previous cinematic adaptation (Henry Hathaway’s 1969 John Wayne vehicle). Although it contains the typically earthy cinematography of Roger Deakins and the gently manipulative musical score of Carter Burwell (which incorporates a melody from Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter), there’s at least one (or two, if you don’t consider the Coens of a piece) seismic tilt(s) in the artistic patina here, and it plays in the film’s favor. True Grit is one of the Coens’ most compassionate and pristine works, and it captures its time and place with authentic poignancy.