Much has been made of The Coen's tinkering with the ending to their newest film True Grit – an adaptation of a novel by Charles Portis which was turned to a hugely popular film adaption by Henry Hathaway (which in turn gave screen icon John Wayne is only Oscar…but you know all of this already) – and how that tinkering makes their western – a wholly un-ironic (or, rather, un-existential) affair that is, surprisingly for the brothers, their most straight-forward narrative…ever – not so much an honest remake, but, what's that word we like to use now? Ah, it's a "reimagining." Well, truth be told I have neither read the source material, nor have I seen the original John Wayne film; therefore, I could only approach this recent telling of the story as it appeared to me: a Coen Brothers movie. It seems to me, from conversations with those who have seen the original film and read the novel, that True Grit v. 2010 is as strict an adaptation of source material as the brothers' attempt to "adapt" Cormac McCarthy a few years ago (which is to say that the "strictness" of an adaptation is really irrelevant to the quality of a film). That is they have stayed true enough to the source material all the while sprinkling in wonderful bits of Coenisms. Therefore, I felt I didn't miss anything from the experience by not knowing anything about the source material or the famous film released some 40 years ago. True Grit is not, as so many have been asserting, a "minor" Coen Brothers movie. I resent that sentiment not because True Grit deserves to be called anything better (it certainly isn't a "masterpiece"), but because the Coen's – two of our best and most challenging filmmakers today – don't have a "minor" film in them (whether or not The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty count as true Coen Brothers movies is up for debate).
True Grit – at its core – is a bildungsroman. Mattie Ross' (the wonderful Hailee Steinfeld) coming of age is what grabs our attention and keeps us interested throughout (not to mention the young actresses sure-handed way of handling the Coen vernacular). Sure, the introduction of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) are quirky and memorable, but the film's heart lies with Matty and how she remembers her journey with these two oddball characters – characters that, as odd as they may be, turn into father figures for the recently fatherless Mattie. The film's plot is well known: Mattie seeks revenge for the murder of her father. Her search leads her to the recruitment of a gruff, world-weary U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn. Along the journey, Mattie is joined (and re-joined) by Texas Ranger LeBoeuf who believes that his title of Texas Ranger is reason enough to believe that he is the best man for the job. That job is to capture one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) – the man responsible for murdering Mattie's father (which is told to us via voice over by an adult Mattie; it is shown in a beautiful opening shot that represents everything that is wonderful about the people, specifically Carter Burwell and Roger Deakins, the Coen's surround themselves with while making a movie) – who is hanging around with The Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) Gang – a gang that Cogburn has a vested interest in. And there it is; that's your story. Simple and to the point, True Grit feels more like "early" Coen Brothers than "minor" Coen Brothers.
The film definitely exists in the second tier of Coen films sitting alongside such greats O Brother Where Art Thou, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There, and The Hudsucker Proxy. Sure it's not as masterful as Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Miller's Crossing, or A Serious Man, but then again no one should expect it to be that (and how many of us would be willing to call any of the aforementioned "minor" films minor?). It is what it is: an expertly crafted (which is par for the course for the Coen Brothers) western that is the most genuine and un-ironic thing the brothers have produced. And that's what makes it so refreshing. It reminded me of why I stood in line for hours when I was younger to see a film like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; in other words, True Grit is so brilliantly entertaining and such a great time at the movies that it reminded me of why I still consider going to the theater to see a movie. The crowd I saw True Grit with was all-in despite the film essentially being a western in the vein of Raising Arizona: heavy on eccentric characters spouting even more eccentric and, for lack of a better term, Coen-esque dialogue; they were hanging on every word and laughing at every idiosyncratic turn of the film's narrative. It's rare for an audience in my city to be so enraptured by a film billed as a revenge film that was instead light on action and heavy on character and plot development. The Coen's have made a fine film in the tradition of the great classic westerns (it reminded me of the Clint Eastwood-helmed westerns, most notably The Outlaw Josey
Wales) in how the story leisurely unfolds before its audience without a care for pacing (and that's a good thing).
But then a funny thing happens: the film switches tones in a final moment that is everything we come to expect aesthetically from the Coen Brothers. Rooster, in full-fledged father mode, carries a snake-bitten Mattie across the Wild West by starlight. It's a moment that shows off the well-known skills of DP Roger Deakins (which shows he can shoot the classic western as well as the artier western – as he did a few years back with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and the lesser-known skills of musician Carter Burwell. It's a moment that is elegiac (as all westerns tend to be nowadays) and beautiful in scope; Deakins takes advantages of the wide-open vistas and paints as beautiful a picture as we come to expect from adept cinematographers who tackle the western. About Burwell: he is the star of the film as his music recalls the obvious allusions to Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, but it also reminded me of how his minimalist approach is able to evoke genuine emotion despite working with filmmakers we usually don't call "emotional" filmmakers (he also wrote the brilliant score for Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich – which again makes the film even better by making the film more emotional than you would think considering the "quirkiness" of the film's story), for existentialism doesn't traditionally lend itself to overt emotional evocations. The music stayed with me long after the images of the film.
As I've already mentioned, True Grit is something of an anomaly: it is simultaneously a rip-roaring great time at the theater and a genuine genre film made by two filmmakers who are not known for their straight-forward approach to genre films. I say anomaly because the experience I had seeing True Grit in the theater was vastly different than the experience I had seeing No Country for Old Men in the theater. And that's where the interesting dilemma begins for me: in the pantheon of Coen films True Grit is definitely second tier, but when I compare it to other films of this year it stands out in the way all Coen films stand out. No one can make (aesthetic choices) a movie and tell a story (quirky narrative and a knack for quotability) like the Coens. True Grit reminded me a lot of Raising Arizona in dialogue (especially the way Damon utters the line: "I thought you were going to say that the sun was in your eye…that is to say you're eye.") and aesthetic (the final "race against time" scene reminded me of the energy of the great chase scene that begins in a super market and goes through people's houses) . But I think the film is most akin to Coen's brilliant 1987 comedy in the way the story arc plays out. I had the same reaction emotionally to True Grit that I do whenever I watch Raising Arizona. Both are films that take you on a journey that contains action and laughs, but both films end on a quiet note of contemplation about how we spend the time we are afforded in life.
I'm sure subsequent viewings will make me admire True Grit even more, but the feeling I had after I left the theater was that – despite my great admiration for the film – I'll have an easier time of forgetting what it is I saw than I did after I watched No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man (and Burn After Reading, for that matter). But so what? The brothers Coen are allowed a pass considering the streak they've been on, and even though I dislike the assertion that True Grit is a "minor" film, it certainly has the feeling of a film I will revere now yet have trouble remembering three years from now. If True Grit tells us anything, it is that the Coen brothers just may be creatively tapped-out. I hope True Grit offers them the respite they deserve. The scary thing, though, is that True Grit comes off as a hell of a film, a place holder, to release during one's "off" period, and the ending of the film (an elegiac remembrance on the loss of time) is something that rings so Coen – not to mention it's an ending like their previous two films that makes you contemplate for days and rethink the entire film – that it makes me wonder what they have in their creative hopper. Whatever is next for them, True Grit stands as a great place holder that shouldn't be punished just because of the lofty expectations that come with the name "Coen" being attached to a film. It's a great entertainment.