But what’s stunning about True Grit is that Jeff Bridges, as completely amazing as he is, doesn’t give the best performance in the film. Matt Damon and Josh Brolin give incredible performances as well, but they’re also not the best on display. No, the best performance comes from young Hailee Steinfeld who, in her first film role, stands tallest amongst a gathering of great actors. It’s a marvel to watch this actress at work, playing with the dated language and making it live, finding the vulnerable side of this seemingly tough as nails girl but never tipping too far into it. Simply put, Hailee Steinfeld delivers the best youth performance in a decade or more, and she delivers one of the best performances of 2010, period.
In fact True Grit has a surfeit of extraordinary acting talent on screen. There’s not a bum performance in the bunch; even Barry Pepper, who has been seemingly lost in the wilderness for some time, is terrific as ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper, getting to deliver one of my all-time favorite lines in cinema history: “I call that bold talk for a one eyed fat man!”
That line is from the original True Grit (and I’m assuming from the book, by Charles Portis), and it’s an example of why this story is perfect for the Coen Brothers’ sensibility. The film is positively dripping in the darkly comic tone they do so well, and do with such straight faces. What’s interesting in True Grit, though, is the way that they’ve taken their usual way of dealing with morons and applied it to actually competent men. Matt Damon’s La Beouf is a Texas Ranger, a brave man and a fine shot, but he’s just as goofy and foolish (in his own way) as just about any Coen character. It’s like they’ve had enough of the easy targets, like Brad Pitt’s gym employee from Burn After Reading, and have gone for the really big game.
It works perfectly, and it allows them to play Rooster Cogburn as both a dissolute mess and a frighteningly competent gunslinger. And by extension it allows them to balance an incredible tone, where a scene can go from being funny to sad to exciting back to funny all within moments. There’s no whiplash, and you never feel the film changing gears. It’s just perfection of tone, the greatest skill the Coens have.
There are, of course, other skills they bring to bear. The script is a wonder; the Coens use Portis’ semi-arcane, creaky courtly dialog amazingly, filling their actor’s mouths with obsolete words and turns of phrase. But they’ve picked actors who can handle it; nobody gargles on the language and every bit of delivery is assured and real and lived in. Matt Damon especially has some mouthfuls to get out, and he acquits himself wonderfully. You almost wonder if the Coens were perversely giggling as they wrote this stuff down, knowing that people would not only have to say it but make it sound natural and good.
And then there’s Roger Deakins. True Grit isn’t one of those Westerns were the story keeps stopping for scenic vistas, although there are quite a few of those. Deakins gets his big moments of beautiful scenery but more importantly he shoots every scene with a serene, gritty beauty. There are a number of sequences of people sitting around and making fun of each other, and Deakins does these just as well as the horses walking along gorgeous geography.
Those talking scenes are just as wonderful as the action, which the Coens shoot with a steady, sure style. There’s not much flash here, and everything is done in a way that could be called old-fashioned. And in what may be a first for the Coens some of the action is actually completely, seriously and unironically thrilling. There’s especially a scene at the end, where Rooster rides on some bad guys, that is fist pumpingly grand. I’ve laughed at action from the Coens, I’ve cringed and I’ve jumped, but I don’t know that I’ve ever wanted to get out of my seat and cheer before.
So back to Jeff Bridges. He finds a darker center to Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne does. The old US Marshall, who is known for his inability to bring his targets in alive, gets introduced on the toilet. He’s fat and he’s clumsy (Bridges finds perfect small physical comedy moments for Rooster, like an attempt to drunkenly get off his horse), but he’s good. We don’t know why Rooster is the way he is - he delivers some lengthy backstory about himself but it’s completely unrevealing - but we don’t have to. Bridges allows us to feel it. Cogburn’s a good man when he’s away from the whiskey, but sadly the whiskey is everywhere on the frontier.
There was a condescending aspect to the relationship between Rooster and Mattie Ross, the 14-year old girl who hires him to track down her father’s killer, in the original. That’s gone here; Rooster doesn’t want the young girl along, but he very quickly seems to come to accept her as an equal. It’s an endearing relationship, one that goes mostly unremarked upon throughout, building to a wonderful and touching climax (and how many Coen Brothers films can you say that about?). It’s interesting that the two versions aren’t all that different in content; it’s the tone and the way the characters are approached that make them feel like totally different beasts. If you know the 1969 True Grit you know this True Grit, but at the same time you don’t know this film at all.
There was a moment in the film where I began to get worried that the narrative was a little too flabby, but then right at that moment (and I mean literally at that moment), the third act kicked into high gear. The film is a remarkable specimen of streamlined storytelling, with not a moment extra or wasted. At this point in their careers the Coens simply know how to tell a story well and with economy, a talent for which we should all be grateful.
I loved every single moment of True Grit; as the film ended I wanted to watch it again. This is a rich, vibrant movie, one that you can slip inside of and live within for two hours. It’s a film that makes you want to stretch out and take up residency, to hang around the characters and soak in the language and the scenery. It’s a film that reminds you why Westerns were once so popular - because they were exciting and looked great but mostly because they allowed Hollywood to tell stories about anything at all. The Coens don’t need to reinvent or deconstruct the Western. This isn’t a 21st century take on anything, it’s just a damn good Western story told damn well.