I’ve previously commented that you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get from the Coen Brothers these days – for every near masterpiece they produce (No Country For Old Men) there is an interesting curio or fluff piece (Burn After Reading). Going into True Grit you’re aware that the results could go either way, especially given their history of remakes (The Ladykillers). Whilst the brothers insist it isn’t a remake it would be difficult not to compare the two initially. Crucially they make a clear enough change to mark this out as a very different animal from the version we all know.
The old version was pretty much a flagship vehicle for John Wayne at the time, moving the focus from the main protagonist (this time played by Hailee Steinfeld with a performance that steals the film from everybody else) to Cogburn once Wayne shows up. Here instead the focus remains the wronged party – crucially – recollecting the events long after they occurred. The focus switches to a lament for the Old West (here idealised as much as its faults are shown) rather than a single character, although all aspects of the past are filtered by his presence.
This is the first interesting point – we have long become adjusted to the Revisionist Western as the norm, but here instead of that we are once again presented the romanticised view of the West, albeit one seen through thirty years of revisionism. It does present a romantic view of the west, of men willing to do the right thing, of traditional heroes and villians – but still realises that for many the result of their actions was a short, violent life. The heroes have their flaws (hilariously so in Matt Damon’s case) but these flaws are human compared to the villains, made even more monstrous by the recollections of the adult Maddie.
Around this the Coen’s deal with their usual preoccupations – the bizarre nature of local dialects and language (the cursing is the most beautiful you will hear), the small moments of humour between violence. If anything their direction is becoming less intrusive with each film – earlier films revelled in setting up wacky camera shots and situations, here the camera is never obtrusive (and Roger Deakins continues many of the visual themes he established with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). There is much discussion of “Anti-acting” where the actor undersells the performance, this may almost be the first example of anti-directing.
The casting is uniformly excellent, with everyone down to the smallest player selling the film. After the relative disappointment of his performance in Tron Legacy (and he was still the second best thing about it) Jeff Bridges once again proves why he is so damn watchable – it’s not the Dude (who, truth be told I never really had time for) instead channelling that other Coen creation, The Stranger. Near unintelligible at time (those accents once again) he is loveable, but only at a distance. Matt Damon shows that more directors should trust him to make a fool of himself and Barry Pepper makes you wish that he was in more films. The true star is however Hailee Steinfeld, and if there is any justice this film will be the start of many things – this is a performance that reminds you of Natalie Portman in Leon, yes, it’s that good.
Will it hold the same place in people’s hearts as the original? It’s unlikely. The Myth of Wayne has built up around that film, but I suspect that many will view this as the better film, just not as likeable. The Coens have once again delivered another near masterpiece to their collection.