For me, TRUE GRIT is second only to MILLER’S CROSSING as my favorite Coen Brother film of all time. TRUE GRIT is also my pick for the single best film of 2010. I say that without the slightest hesitation. It simply is so.
What sets it apart?
Well, it is simple. Every single character in the film is a unique and separate being with their own eccentricities, manner and motivation. Every single character is fully realized, no matter if they’re on screen a second or the duration – and that is something so incredibly unique in the world of modern film.
Back in the olden days of cinema, that was par for the course. Writers wrote unique characters, character actors were cast to fill the parts and the audience was utterly delighted by every character in the film. Think about the films of John Huston or Howard Hawks. Think about the types of characters you find in their films. You delight as you discover each one. That is exactly the case here.
As a remake, TRUE GRIT joins a rare list of films that are vastly superior in every fashion to the original. There’s a reason… Like when JOHN CARPENTER was remaking the classic THE THING, he went back to the original story WHO GOES THERE – and lo and behold there was a wealth of material to draw upon. With the Coens, they weren’t so much making a remake of John Wayne’s TRUE GRIT, they went back and adapted Charles Portis’ classic Western novel.
From the brilliant opening shot you’ll want to just hand Roger Deakins the Oscar that he was denied for SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, FARGO, KUNDUN, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and THE READER… And give one of the finest, yet unrecognized by the blind members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, cinematographers in the history of film. Seriously. How on Earth did he not win for ANY of those movies? Well, the opening shot of TRUE GRIT… it’ll get it for him, because the rest of the film is in keeping with the awesome of that shot.
You’ll also begin to fall in love with the film due to Carter Burwell’s amazing score, don’t worry, I’m pretty sure he’s going to be screwed out of an Oscar Nomination, solely because… Somehow, the tone deaf at the Academy have never even nominated Carter – most likely due to his habit of brilliantly adapting pre-existing songs and themes to add to the beauty of the film, but then automatically makes him ineligible for a Nomination. But next to DAFT PUNK’s TRON LEGACY score, I dare say I haven’t heard a more perfect accompanying score for a film this year. It not only feels utterly authentic to the era, but it creates such mood and atmosphere in tandem with Deakins’ brilliant photography and the spot on perfect production and costume design.
This is a film for you to lend an ear to, mainly because the dialogue is so incredibly sharp that you’ll work to hear it all.
Let’s talk about the acting for a bit here, because that’s where things just get fucking amazing here.
You have to begin all discussions concerning performances on TRUE GRIT with the amazing 1st time acting performance of Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie Ross. Earlier this year, a person at Paramount boasted that Hailee gave a performance in this film that was as great as what Tatum O’Neal gave in PAPER MOON and that felt… doubtful at best to me at the time. Not that I doubted Hailee’s ability, nor that of the Coens, who have proven they can get a brilliant performance out of just about anybody… but because this was an Executive talking, though I have to admit… that he knew to reference Tatum O’Neal in PAPER MOON was impressive. BUT… once I saw the performance, I completely got it. Mattie Ross is very much a character in the spirit of Addie Loggins of PAPER MOON. She’s a vibrant and headstrong young lady. She’s very forthright and fiercely intelligent and has genuine nerves of steel. Watching her cross the river upon horseback… you can’t help but be concerned for her. Monitor your own face as you see her negotiate for what is rightfully due to her by the man who had made a deal with her father, but was trying to take advantage of the situation, only to be slapped with an awesome kid! I could feel my face smile, not because the scene was funny, but out of admiration for the tenacity of this gal. Seriously, she’s awesome. Hailee is the discovery of the year in terms of performance. She’ll have you gripping your armrest out of concern and in her closing scenes – wow.
Of course, the big boots to fill belonged to John Wayne. If you’ve seen the original TRUE GRIT, you know that the only real reason we talk about that film is because it is a rather fun, if buffoonish performance out of John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. Now, I love that role, but it wasn’t really playing to Wayne’s strongest suit. U.S. Marshal Cogburn did have problems with alcohol, was missing an eye… but he was also a hard man too. Jeff Bridges just destroys as Rooster Cogburn. Bridges plays that character with the proper amount of relish and a hefty amount of true grit. You believe that he’s capable of everything he says he can do. I love the moment where you see him first care about Mattie. When he first admires this young lady. That she isn’t some soft dimwit girl like he’s used to running into in the West. She’s got grit as well. Watching him play in the courtroom was masterful. Watching how he assesses dangerous situations in such a way that he remains safe… again, awesome. But then, it’s just the stories he tells as they’re riding along on this quest of revenge. It is brilliant. But when he’s at his best, is when he’s battling with Matt Damon’s La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger that’s also hunting Tom Chaney.
Yes, let’s talk about Damon’s La Boeuf. Most of this story is taking place up in Arkansas and into the Indian Territory, that is now Oklahoma. Matt’s La Boeuf comes across as an ineffectual braggart for the vast majority of the film. There’s a bit of his performance that reminded me of Richard Mulligan’s General George Armstrong Custer in LITTLE BIG MAN. He thinks a bit too much about himself. Of his station in life. And he definitely doesn’t mix well with these two souls.
Then there’s the man, what killed Mattie’s father, the nefarious Tom Chaney, played brilliantly by Josh Brolin – in a role that will surely pick up a Supporting Actor nom. Watching Tom Chaney on screen, you are likely not to see much of Josh Brolin, the entire tenor of his speech is different, in some ways he reminds me of Alan Rickman, when he was pretending to be a cowardly executive at Nakatomi Plaza with Willis. There’s a crafty motherfucker set into his eyes, but his slack-jawed dumb fuck delivery of lines makes him seem harmless. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he has a wick long enough to burn bright very long, but he does know how to play a scene to his advantage – and he is an evil fuck. When we get introduced to his character – with all the conflicting information we’ve been given in advance of his character’s introduction on screen… well, you’ll love what he does with it – and you can absolutely see where each of the 3 that are seeking him, well… where they’re coming from.
Then there’s the invisible man, Barry Pepper, who is amazing as Ned Pepper, the leader of the gang that Brolin’s Chaney sides up with. I found Pepper to be completely unrecognizable as Ned. He’s an oddly noble criminal bastard – one with some history with Cogburn. But his gang… to a man, they’re awesome. In particular, that one guy that never has a line of dialogue… but that… well. You’ll see. Holy shit, that character ruled.
Along the trail there’s quite a few characters we meet – like Ed Corbin as BEAR GRIT, who lives in Indian Territory, trading and practicing medicine. When he first opens his mouth, I guarantee you will laugh at the awesome voice that exits his gargantuan body.
Every last scene of this movie is amazing. Like the 3 men being hung, each having their last say… kinda. Brilliant. Everyone has great faces on display here. Which again reminds me of the work of John Huston, John Ford & Howard Hawks. You can tell instantly the difference here – characters with great lines in their face and coming out of their mouths. Nothing wasted or unwanted. Tight and precisely as intense as it needs to be.
This film has that same majesty that MILLER’S CROSSING had. There’s scenes that unfold like a brilliant scene should unfold – and the instant that you see it, you know… this is great.
I dearly love a handful of films this year, but I can not deny the Coens. I loved NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but this is an instant classic. The performances and the setting, the music and the images… Everything is just perfect. This is the role that Bridges should’ve won his first Oscar for. It’s a big one!
This is a tremendous film.