"I find that man has grit, true grit at that"- Maddie Ross (from the 1968 novel by Charles Portis)
In discovering just how to approach a review for this film, I had to search my thoughts for some time to discover a really empowered opening. When I finally sat down to write I had realized that the empowerment that I was seeking was much more personal than I had imagined and in the scope of an hours time I feel as though I could face the world, with a little help from the awe inspiring power of grace.
Needless to say, the film True Grit, a 2010 remake of the 1969 John Wayne film and 1968 novel- is much more a film about grace than about vengeance. For all of the discussions I have entered into about westerns, very little has been written about what one might signify as "the gray area" of western morality. It is in that indecisive center that I wish to place my review, for in doing so I intend to offer up two different interpretations of the Coen Brothers latest. Enjoy.
Left to Right: Halle Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and Jeff Bridges as Rooster Coburn
True Grit (2010)
Directed by The Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan)
View #1: True Grit is a good film, and an altogether minimalist approach to western cinema
View #2: True Grit is a simple allegory for a long lost genre done so without the inclusion of the aforementioned directors staple style
The two views are very similar, and yet they create surprisingly different outcomes when deciding if this film is truly worth recognition. The Coen Brothers are known for a dry, witty, and unfiltered sense of irony in their films- and in True Grit all of those elements are amiss. Its as if the style that they have produced in films such as Millers Crossing, or even No Country simply could not exist in a western not based upon a stylized mythology. Too often modern westerns fall because they are too concentrated on recapturing the essence of what made the genre successful. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is probably the last of the great Hollywood westerns because it seemingly closed the door to any film that came after it. And yet, somehow there still seems to be material for which to base this film upon.
True Grit, in the first view, is a film intent on viewing the west in the most realistic and minimalistic way possible. There is no great moral or lesson to the story, the characters exist in a teetering middle ground of moral ambiguity, and the course of journey changes the characters only if they allow change to become them. This is a post modern western: one that hinges itself on showing what is, and allowing the audience to make assumptions about what could be on their own time. Jeff Bridges Rooster Cogburn is a realist. He understands how to survive and what his past has forced him to do, but that is all that he knows. There is no sense that Rooster is a man of great moral dilemma, nor is he a man bound by tragedy. He exists because of men like Tom Chaney (Brolin) or Lucky Ned (Pepper), and not without a sense of duty- seen most prominently during the last 30 minutes of the film. But one never really receives the notion that Cogburn is acting because of a sense of moral conscience, only because of necessity. The villains, in this view, are seen without personal reflection or even much depth as to why they do what they do. Their intentions are simply survival from a trail of justice, and ultimately without the grace of screen time to truly develop before our eyes. I think that in this perspective we are given the pieces as they are, without any influence as to what they are doing on the board. Instead we make do with what becomes of the "game", satisfying or not.
True Grit, in the second view, is a very simple yet finite homage to what the western genre used to be. In our modern conception of western period pieces, one could say that there have been several misfires (3:10 to Yuma, Open Range), and several noteworthy successes (No Country, There Will Be Blood). Rarely, however, has a film made in the modern era been able to capture the successes set forth by previous generations renditions. There are no new John Fords, or even Clint Eastwoods, regardless of the fact that the latter is still living. You can hear people talk about this "new True Grit" only in comparison to what has already been done, namely John Wayne's 1969 film. When looking at the film in this manner, one can see that the Coen Brothers set out to simply adapt the source material in the most stylistically simplistic way and create an unbiased approach to the western genre based upon our fascinations with the genre. This is driven more by what audiences are shown to follow, rather than their interpretation of what is actually taking place. It is certainly different than what Joel and Ethan have brought to us before, and in looking back across the film it shows. The characters in this interpretation are caricatures of western hero/villain character types, and thus only exist to fulfill certain duties within the films course. A good example of this is Matt Damon's "Le Beouf" as a walking, talking pulp cowboy come to life from a wax museum. He embodies a fascination with the west, without ever accepting the reality of its "true grit". Ironically however, it is Damon's demise within the film that strips him of that dignity very quickly, as if to say that our ideological fascination with the west can never truly exist realistically.
Perhaps then we can mix both interpretations together to say that this film is both a throwback and a post modern approach to the genre, while still remaining faithful to its literature based source material.
Whether you found the film to be too simplistic, or perhaps purposely post modern- the fact of the matter is that what True Grit is, is all that there is. There was no real message, other than a traditional sense of justice- which my girlfriend noted is the central theme of almost all of the Coen Brothers films, and thus in retrospect this film as well. I enjoyed feeling immersed into the film without apologies for the 1880s dialogue, or the rather straightforward narrative; but did feel that at times the film could have presented certain elements, namely the villains, a bit more prominently. Jeff Bridges is fantastic as a much more realistic Rooster Cogburn, which I know many would be mad at me for saying- as so many have already stated Wayne's iconic role as being more prominent. Somehow I found Bridges take on the character to be a bit more interesting, and altogether bound more to the realities of the Old West than Wayne ever really did. It will not be surprising if he, and Hailee Steinfeld (Maddie) get nominated for their roles, as they truly make up the soul of the film.