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True Grit: Coens Defy and Deliver

By Jim Rohner · December 27, 2010

Leave it to Coens to defy your expectations. The guys who brought a gallows police procedural to the friendliest place on earth in Fargo and who really tied the room together with their laid back film-noir The Big Lebowski continue to prove that they are two of the most fascinating filmmakers working today either because of or despite their tendency to jump from genre to genre, often times completely shrugging off tonal and thematic consistencies. Their remake of Henry Hathaway's True Grit is an exercise in just such unpredictability and depending on who you are, you'll either love it or brush it off along with The Ladykillers.

You see, the trailers and commercials would have you believe that True Grit is your run-of-the-mill revenge tale, albeit with beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins and fabulous performances from all three leads: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld. They'll lead you to believe that Bridges, playing the frequently drunk and broke Rooster Cogburn, portrays a mercenary who is way past his prime and gets hired more due to financial constraints than to any formidable reputation. They'll also lead you to believe that Cogburn's 14-year old employer, Mattie Ross, is an incapable coward and that her incompetence and subsequent capture by the cold-blooded Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) re-ignites the uncompromising Bill Munny tendencies within our inebriated protagonist. SPOILER ALERT: None of that happens.

What does happen is far simpler, but by no means any less interesting thanks to the great talents of the Coen Brothers. As always, the brothers coax terrific performances from their actors and it all starts with newcomer Steinfeld. Only 14-years old in real-life, it's uncanny that the Coens expected the first-time star to stand toe-to-toe with Oscar-winners Bridges and Damon and even more uncanny that she actually does so. Her machine gun staccato accents the prim and proper enunciation of a script completely lacking any contractions and stands as a great juxtaposition to the grizzled mumblings of the weathered Bridges. The trifecta is complete with Damon, who despite being the lowest head on the totem pole, still brings a memorable element of rapport and banter to the group.

Many interactions between the three, in fact, are surprisingly funny in a completely intentional and natural way. The Coens, as serious as their films can be, are no strangers to humor and while the jokes in True Grit would flop had they been written in a comedy, they add another level of enjoyment to what would otherwise be a standard revenge film.

Having said that, there's a big problem with True Grit in the sense that there's never any doubt Mattie or Cogburn will succeed in their quest. In between award-worthy performances and cinematography, there's certainly a story that builds scenes efficiently and connects plot points logically, but there's never any real hint of something grander on the line than just what's on the surface and to one degree or another, I believe that that has something to do with how the Coens tweak our expectations for the characters. Combine that with the addition of some unnecessary voiceover that awkwardly bookends the film and the puzzling inclusion of the 1880's hymn "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms," and it's understandable if you leave the theater think you missed something. However, considering the writers/directors behind True Grit, for all we know this all just means the film warrants repeat viewings and there are certainly much, much worse things out there to sit through twice.