Summary: A classic Western story told with refreshing perspective.
Review: I grew up with classic Westerns, mostly of the television variety. ‘Bonanza’, ‘Gunsmoke’, and ‘The Rifleman’, among others, helped shape my sense for storytelling, first through innocent admiration, and then through critical distance and deconstruction. The Wild West is quintessential American mythology and so overused. The Western genre long ago went stale to my taste, with only a few stories cleansing my palate and proving its enduring potency. Among these have been films like ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, ‘Unforgiven’, the remake of ‘3:10 to Yuma’, and now the Coen Brothers’ rendition of ‘True Grit’.
‘True Grit’ looks and feels like a movie out of time. It’s appropriately gritty and realistic, but lacks the revisionist cynicism often associated with Westerns of the past few decades, allowing it to keep the ethics and themes of the source novel without repentance. If I had to boil it down to one word, it would be “classic”. Like most of the Coen Brothers’ output, it seems destined for that appraisal in posterity. In style and substance, the film far exceeds genre expectations, lending humanity and thus complexity to every character, realism to the violence, a nigh-surreal level of beauty and variety to the settings, spitfire dialog loaded with archaic phraseology, etc., etc., etc. The Coens are masters of character development, and it shows, even within the simple archetypical roles at play.
Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original film and here inhabited by Jeff Bridges, is in this film closer to the real gunslingers of the old West than the kind of folks Wayne played in his career. He’s simultaneously cowardly and heroic, an object of pity and admiration, a man with a bloody reputation that doesn’t exceed believability. He’s sought out by a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross, whose father was murdered by a two-bit villain named Tom Chaney, and she wants the Marshal to aid her in her quest for justice. Hailee Steinfeld, the young actress who brings Mattie to life, is better than most established thespians. Not only can she deliver the complex, straight-from-the-novel dialog with the best of them, she makes you believe that a young girl of her intelligence and spunk might just accomplish her goal. Since the film’s related entirely from her perspective, we experience the familiar Western imagery and scenarios through fresh eyes. I make special mention of these two, but the other characters and the actors that play them, down to the smallest role, crackle with the fires of life.
It’s often said that reality is unrealistic, and ‘True Grit’, by hewing close to real-world consequences, has a sense of unfamiliar unpredictability that is entirely refreshing. We may scoff and declare that the violence on show is the stuff of Hollywood, but stranger things have happened, and ‘True Grit’ is a reminder of this fact. Details that are often scuffed over in cinema, such as the particulars and limits of firearms, get embraced here. My favorite moment of realism is when a man stands on top of a hill, viewed from afar, and when he fires his pistol in the air, there is delay to allow the sound to reach our ears. I recall saying “Wow!”, since even something as simple as sound delay is a rarity in Hollywood films.
Of course, all these trappings are meaningless without a strong story with resonant themes. The narrative thrust is the stuff of classic Westerns: A murder sparks a manhunt, based on nothing more than the bereaved’s wish for vengeance, and the law looks high and low for the villain, a journey culminating in a bloody firefight. As I mentioned before, the refreshing factor is Mattie Ross’ naivety, which shatters her illusions of simple retribution and exposes her to the terrible results of such an adventure. It’s a brutally truthful coming-of-age story. Often revelations of the harsh, dangerous world mark childhood’s end. The only way to overcome it is with other people, even people we despise, though as Mattie learns, our efforts may still yield bittersweet endings. This reality requires true grit.
This film is a total pleasure to watch. Exciting, funny, scary, and sad, it’s a classic Western adventure, and best of all it’s actually quite accessible, despite all the things I said about its requisite grit. I look forward to seeing ‘True Grit’ again.