The harshest critics of True Grit have accused the film of being the Coen’s in a minor key. After the existential demo derby that made up No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man, I should feel a little worried if the Coen’s didn’t take a bit of a breather. The difference is, I don’t see a "lighter" tone as necessarily signifying a step down.
Though I love the Coen’s who brought us that extremely disquieting trilogy, I love to Coen’s who are prankster’s. The one’s who in Raising Arizona, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Big Lebowski and even Fargo, more or less handed out a box of exploding cigar’s to the general public. All so they could see our faces when they went off.
And it’s those Coen’s, the one’s who act as funhouse mirrors, who show up in True Grit. They take Henry Hathaway’s gooey (though judging by most of the reviews I’ve read of the remake unfairly undervalued) slice of Americana and turn it into a gothic, shambling, stark, nightmare comedy. With Roger Deakin’s superlative cinematography the Coen’s get as far from the vision wide open spaces the original featured as they possibly can. The Innocent in True Grit is delivered to a grey land filled with dying scrub, where all the trees tall enough to be of any consequence seem to have eyeless corpses hanging from them. . It’s a stark strange world inhabited by stark strange people. Like the two children (?) We see poking a tied horse with a sharpened stick for want of any other entertainment, or the dentist in a bear suit willing to sell a corpse sans teeth. If Diane Arbus ever shot a western it’d look an awful lot like True Grit. It’s a vision of an Innocent Girl cast into hell. With only a drunken shambling wreck and a vainglorious ranger who is at least half talk for guardians.
And it’s pretty fucking funny.
If nothing else True Grit remains one of the most simply pleasurable films I’ve watched all year. If there are directors (or writers) other then the Coen’s who can score laughter strictly from Cadence they do not leap directly to mind. (You just watch the lines “It would be alright” “You are not ‘Le Beef’” and “I do not know this man” may not seem like laugh riots on the surface but just see if they don’t get to you.)
As to be expected there’s nothing in the film technically that is not top notch and filmed with skewed imagination. The cast included. Bridges Cogburn has been praised so much it is difficult to know were to begin. Suffice to say he manages every bit of a difficult multi faceted character, and is able to make him equally and separately iconic then Wayne’s. Damon seems to be getting the short end of the praise here, but he performs the role of La Boeuf with a kind of comic perfection. Hailee Stanfield of course stands at the center of the film, and the Coen’s gamble paid off. She takes to the Coen’s dialogue so well she almost seems a prodigy. Barry Pepper, all broke tooth menace and Josh Brolin, playing Chaney as a man all the more dangerous for being a half witted buck toothed Podunk moron.
True Grit is one of those films I find difficult to write about because of how much it does so awfully well. Funny, scary, exciting, genuinely heartfelt and pushed by the skewed vision of a couple of geniuses. The only fault I can find in the film comes with the shrug of an epilogue (though that last shot with that music is a doozy) and Carter Burnwell’s lacking score. Building the score around the motif of “The Everlasting Arms” is a good one (As well as being one of the film’s many nods to Night Of The Hunter. To which this film could easily be a spiritual sibling if that most singular of films can ever be said to have one. ) . But that ends up becoming almost the only cue we hear in the last third of the movie and it is unbelievably tedious.
I can only hope that the making of True Grit has not scratched the Coen’s western itch. They are too damn good at it. I recall when Burn came out Ethan Coen mentioning that they had written a Spaghetti Western, which Ethan promised “Had a scene with a Chicken you would never forget.” Perhaps there is no better compliment I can pay True Grit, then it desperately makes me want to see that scene with the chicken.