When No Country for Old Men came out in 2007, the Coen Brothers hearkened back to a pacing that took its time to find its own path, like a gentle stream, instead of the broken dam style that plagues modern cinema. It wouldn’t be fair to disregard the book’s author, Cormic McCarthy for this modern western’s ability to be retrospective, but it was a tool the Coen Brothers seemed very comfortable playing with. The final moments of No Country demonstrate this brilliantly with a scene that takes place after the major resolution of what viewers, trained by modern cinema’s ways, would consider the key event. Instead, the Coens gave us a quiet resolution to the real story; an eloquent and moving monologue by Tommy Lee Jones at the breakfast table. No guns, no comebacks, no explosions, just a man reflecting on death after going through the events of the film. It’s part of what earned them an Oscar for “Best Picture” and, with two more motion pictures under their belt, Burn After Reading (2008) and A Serious Man (2009), the Coen Brothers set their attention, once again, to a pacing that’s less interested in keeping the attention of an ADD-addled audience expecting character growth and tidy resolution. Instead, we find a quiet film peppered with moments of intense and swift violence, and the balanced, well-placed quirky humor they’re already well known for.
The Coens’ True Grit sticks closer to the 1968 Charles Portis novel than its celluloid older brother, but still pays respect to a film that earned John Wayne an Oscar for his portrayal of hard-nosed U.S. Marshall, Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn. Jeff Bridges had his own Academy high last year with Crazy Heart, and it looks like Christmas is coming early again as he heads up arguably the biggest film this holiday season, reprising the role of Kevin Flynn in Tron Legacy. But, it’s pretty obvious that Bridges’ Oscar hopes aren’t pinned on Tron, although my fingers have been crossed for months in geek-laced hope for a triumphant return to form of the cult classic. Bridges’ performance in True Grit should once again put him on the awards short-list (although Grit was snubbed by The Golden Globes), as he takes the task of bending the mold that Wayne created (and reprised in the sequel Rooster Cogburn), and makes a character that is more repulsive and alive than Wayne’s portrayal. It is an unapologetic performance of an unapologetic man who finds the ability to show compassion, while avoiding the need to grow too much emotionally, over the run time of the film.
While Bridges lives up to and surpasses one of Wayne’s signature leading roles, the Coens return the focus of the narrative to that of the book, and put it on the shoulders of a young girl who displays real ‘true grit’. Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld holds the film together in an absolutely captivating performance. Steinfeld is able to get her mouth around the Coen Brothers’ smart and often, for her character, pithy dialogue with a speed and finesse that would trip the tongues of actors twice her age, but she manages to handle it while balancing a character that causes no end of annoyance to her on screen companions, while remaining to conjure quite the opposite in her audience.
Matt Damon rounds out the posse in pursuit of the man (Josh Brolin in a short, some might call “cameo” of uneducated killer and thief, Tom Chaney) who killed young Mattie’s father in cold blood. Damon’s portrayal of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, is the perfect challenging, dominant male needed for the older, arguably wiser Rooster Cogburn to butt heads with on the trail. Of course, Damon adds life beyond an easy, one-dimensional character with a performance that never allows us to fully realize whether LaBoeuf is a hapless talker, forever wandering into trouble (as Cogburn constantly points out) or a sample of the best Texas has to offer.
While the actors of this heavy character-piece, do a superb job of populating the desolate and isolating West of legend, long time Coen Brothers collaborator and cinematographer Roger Deakins paints a perfect backdrop of stark vistas and cold, desolate colors to maximum effect. So many times, character pieces seem to forget their widescreen formatting, and pull in close for one too many medium shots of wandering monologues and deep, philosophical hypothesizing, with the intent to place the audience firmly into the drama. This technique often has an adverse effect, causing a devaluing of the wider world these events are set in. Deakins is not a man who falls into this trap, allowing the dark and desolate plains of an uncivilized country play as backdrop to the intricacies of the drama set by the actors.
Even though the Coens have adamantly labeled Grit an adaptation of the book and not a remake, the Coens have inadvertently made a true handbook in “how-to make a remake for dummies”. And even though it never fully restores the “grit” of the book, the Coens achieve a truly wondrous oxymoron with a solemn, stark and often cold film that manages to find warmth in a cobbled together band of happenstance companions. It isn’t flashy, it isn’t over stylized. It’s simple and, above all, absolutely engrossing from open to close.