Hollywood doesn’t make too many westerns these days. Maybe producers don’t want to bet on a genre that isn’t as popular as it once was. These days western releases are few and far between. A really good western, like the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, only comes every few years. They really don’t make them like they used to. Now Joel and Ethan Coen bring us True Grit, and it’s not just a great western, but a great movie.
Jeff Bridges stars as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, in the role that won John Wayne his Oscar for his portrayal in the 1969 version. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a young girl who hires Cogburn to track down Tom Chaney, the outlaw who murdered her father, played here with slow-witted menace by Josh Brolin. Mattie and Rooster head off into Indian territory, along with Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), who also has been hunting Chaney.
Joel and Ethan Coen are not strangers to the western genre. They came close with their Oscar winning adaptation of No Country For Old Men. Even that film, which was mostly faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, contained the Brothers’ detached, humorous sensibilities. This time the Coens seem to play it straight.
Not that the movie doesn’t have humor. It just seems to spring from the characters rather than anything the Coens deliberately inject into the film. The violence in the film is often sudden and unexpected in ways reminiscent of Fargo.
The Coens rely on some of their usual collaborators with excellent results. The score by composer Carter Burwell is subdued and mournful, and the cinematography by director Roger Deakins brings stark beauty to the harsh landscape. It manages to feel epic while maintaining an intimate feel.
What really sets the film apart is the acting. Jeff Bridges is excellent as Rooster Cogburn, and even though there seems to be an element of the Dude in every part Bridges has played recently, he brings nuance to what could have been played for maximum bombast. Damon continues to give consistently good performances, this being no exception as a lawman who may not be up to the task, but is brave enough to try. And Hailee Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie. She is a girl raised to survive in a harsh world, and hides her fear by being tougher than anyone around her. Steinfeld deserves an Oscar nomination for her work here.
The Coens are great filmmakers. What’s really remarkable about True Grit is how they approach the material with restraint. It feels like a Coen Brothers movie without screaming it. It is a showcase for all the talent in front of and behind the camera, and it is one of the best pictures of the year.