Coen Brothers Master the Western with “True Grit”

For years many people including myself have felt that the Western is dead. Sure, there have been a few to come around like Open Range and 3:10 to Yuma, but that’s nothing for a genre that was once so popular that Westerns were being pumped out weekly (on film and TV). Today it’s difficult to remember the last great Western to come out of Hollywood. Some would say Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, arguably one of the best Westerns in history. That was twenty years ago, recent films have not done enough to reignite the Western.

This may be what genre experts Joel and Ethan Coen are doing with True Grit. Their first film, Blood Simple, was an excellent exercise in film noir. They revisited noir again brilliantly with The Man Who Wasn’t There and combined it with the Western for No Country For Old Men. The Coens also played with the gangster film in Miller’s Crossing. Needless to say, if anyone knows genre history in today’s Hollywood crop of filmmakers it’s the Coen brothers. This time they take the Western head on, unafraid of its recent lackluster past.

Based on the novel by Charles Portis, True Grit is about a young girl, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld),   who is seeking revenge and retribution for her father’s murder. Mattie narrates the film’s opening scene where we see her father lying on the ground outside their house. He had been shot and the killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) was on the run. Mattie heads into town to tend to her family’s affairs and searches for the right man to hunt her father’s killer. After inquiring, we learn Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is the meanest marshal around and Mattie seeks him out. We learn that Cogburn is not only mean but also knows how to tip a bottle.

Cogburn tries to brush off Mattie but he quickly sees she is smart, persistent, and has a larger vocabulary than most adults. Cogburn is offered fifty dollars to take down Chaney, who was now likely in Indian Territory, dead or alive. Another man, Texas Ranger Laboeuf (Matt Damon), is also after Chaney who apparently also killed a Texas senator. Laboeuf learns that Cogburn is after the same man and tells him about the reward for Chaney. The two strike a deal to split the reward and blow town (knowing Mattie intended on coming along to kill Chaney with her dad’s pistol). Not to be outsmarted, Mattie rides off to the river to find Cogburn and Laboeuf on the other side. She ambitiously swims her horse across the river to catch up with the men and join in the adventure.

When I first heard the Coens were remaking True Grit, a classic originally starring John Wayne, I wondered how anyone could fill The Duke’s shoes. To my delight, watching the film didn’t bring up memories of Wayne. Bridges brought his own version of Cogburn to the screen with his own style of the delightful dialogue. The Coen’s film has some similarities but is far different in presentation which makes it stand alone. To fans of the original, trust me this film does not act like a replacement for the Hathaway film as the two complement each other well. In fact, this may be the best pair of original and remake that there is.

The acting is superb from everyone; especially newcomer Hallie Steinfeld who embodied the fast-talking Mattie brilliantly. She was able to rattle off her lines with such rapid wit it could rival some of the classic performances such as Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. As stated above, Bridges brought his own version of Cogburn to the screen and Matt Damon worked well in the supporting role of Laboeuf, not overplaying it as I expected. Just like Alfred Hitchcock did in the Golden Age, the Coen brothers always have had masterful control over their actors.

In addition, True Grit channels some great imagery that would have impressed John Ford and Anthony Mann, two important Western filmmakers of the past. Combining some beautiful wide shots of massive landscapes (nodding to Ford) and some brilliantly tight and rugged terrain (nodding to Mann) make this film the kind of aesthetic pleasure we can expect from the Coens. There is also a shot referencing Eastwood’s Unforgiven in one of the final scenes, fans will pick it up with ease.

Generally speaking, Westerns can almost always be broken down to one conflict: wilderness versus civilization. The Wild West was slowly becoming civilized and the savage nature of gunfighters and ruthless “lawmen” was being threatened. The reason people like Rooster Cogburn were useful is because they shared the dark, murderous side that guys like Cheney and his gang had. The only difference is the Cogburns of the West were fighting on the side of civilization (for people like Mattie). The greatest of Westerns always capture the essence of this conflict and True Grit does just that.

It is difficult to say whether or not this film will bring the Western back, but at the very least a great film like this certainly helps. 2010 has been an abysmal year for movies; until this point I was picking The Social Network as best film. True Grit now has that nomination from this humble viewer, a film that may prove to use a faded genre to win over the hearts of a new generation.

Chris Yogerst

Chris is an associate lecturer at the University of Wisconsin Colleges and is a PhD film student at Regent University. He is also editor and a film critic for Parcbench. His articles are linked on numerous sites around the web. Follow him at twitter.com/chrisyogerst

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