I had a really hard time choosing an image for this post, because, truth be told, almost every image in this film is like a painting. And really, that's representative of the film itself. It's not a style exercise like the idea of a Coen Brothers-directed western would suggest. No, this isn't The Assassination of Jesse James part 2, and it shouldn't be. The sensibilities of that film and the Coen Brothers' latest materpiece, True Grit is a much more straightforward and accessible work, both in contrast to Andrew Dominik's film, and to much of their own career. At once both their most emotionally warm film and possibly one of their best screenplays, if not the best. It takes true brilliance in writing to take an arcane language such as that of the old West and make it flow at rapid-fire speed in a manner that rivals the organic flow of Aaron Sorkin's screenplay for The Social Network, if not besting it in places. The film is at once a mixture of classic Coen sensibilities and a more traditional revenge western, a combination that proves to be a match made in heaven. Not a remake of the 1969 film, but rather a more faithful and thematically richer adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis. In the source material, the Coens have found a literally resource as perfectly matched for their artistic endeavors as Cormac McCarthy was in their crowning achievement, No Country for Old Men.
But don't attempt to draw comparisons between the two, they could be from an entirely different planet. Whereas No Country for Old Men was a brilliant existential examination of how human begins react when confronted with insurmountable evil and death incarnate, True Grit is a western cut from the cloth of the likes of John Ford, Sergio Leone, and the great Western films of yesteryear. However, it lacks the grandstanding heroics, and downright racism of those films, instead finding itself being a visually, thematically, and ultimately very emotionally investing film.
Gone are the archetypes of black and white heros, replaced by the craggy, hulking figure of Jeff Bridges in what may very well be the performance of his career. Bridges breathes a legendary quality into the role of Rooster Cogburn that surpasses that of even John Wayne in the previous incarnation of the role. Here we have a man who is the meanest sonofabitch alive, yet is caring and soft underneath. His scenes with Mattie Ross have a sweet innocence to them that harkens back to a time when Cogburn was once a younger man, someone with something to prove and damned if anyone gets in his way. The voice, the beard, the eyes, the posture, the movements. Everything in his portrayal of Cogburn is nothing short of extraordinary, and he completely disappears into the role. It is a sight to behold, and, for my money, deserves to win Jeff Bridges a second consecutive Academy Award for Best Actor, a feat not achieved since Tom Hanks won for Philidelphia and then again for Forrest Gump the following year. If any actor this year deserves it, it's Bridges, and had he not won last year, the award would be his in a cake-walk.
But Bridges would be nothing without the two incredible partners at his side. Matt Damon is something of a mini-revelation in the role of Texas Ranger Laboeuf. His back and forth banter with Bridges pops and hisses with the two actors going toe to toe and neither ever letting up. It's not a sensational performance, but quite possibly a career best from one of the finest actors of his generation. Combining a almost false sense of chivalry with pride and arrogance, Damon gives us a character not immediately likable but someome who proves essential to the story. His texas ranger is perfect in the voice, the walk, the way he carries himself. Vanity, pride, and insecurity eventually give way to nobility in a way that really makes you love the character.
And what more need be said about Hailee Steinfeld? There is a mixture of wide-eyed innocence leaving her life, laser-like focus on her ultimate goal of bringing Chaney to justice, and this whip-smart teenager who is far too clever for her own good. That she can stand amongst titans like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon and rise as their equals is a feat in and of itself. And boy does she ever rise to occasion. If there is any justice in the world, she will walk away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress this year, since no other woman in that category even comes close. But really, she should be competing in the Lead Actress category, and, for my money, would be Natalie Portman's biggest competition. But if Paramount thinks they can guide her to a win easier in Supporting Actress, so be it, the performance deserves a lion's share of accolades. As far as I'm concerned, it's the most extraordinary debut performance from a child actor since Christian Bale (likely Oscar winner this year for Best Supporting Actor) was unleashed to audiences years ago 23 years ago in Empire of the Sun. A star is born.
Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper shine in their noteworthy, albeit brief villainous roles. Brolin brings an energy here that is hard to describe, but he conveys the sense of a man who feels left out and mistreated, bordering on a mixture of paranoia and simply a child who isn't picked to be on anyone's team. He feels excluded from all the cool stuff, and there's something to be said about making your villain oddly sympathetic in a short scene, only to have him remind you that he's a loose cannon that can't be allowed to live.
The film shines with a gorgeous feat of cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins. It doesn't have that same art-feel of his best work in The Assassination of Jesse James, but it's a stunning, painterly look nonetheless. And Carter Burwell, longtime Coen Brothers collaborator, has crafted what might be his finest work yet here. Based on protestant hymns, the score sings with a quality that is both traditional and progressive. I can hear the strings, piano, and brass in my head as I type to these images, crafting a ballet of sight and sound.
But for all the standout aspects of the film, it is surprisingly reserved in a lot of ways. More a traditional western than a Coen Brothers film, it isn't a style exercise or complete with the duo's trademark quirky, offbeat sensibilities. What emerges, instead, is a visually and thematically rich tale of revenge and closure. One thing I kept coming back to in reflecting on the film is the need for closure on unfinished business by each character. And that's really what the film is about. Finding that peace and moving on. We all crave it, but ultimately, do we ever really find it? One could go on for hours about the thematic landscape in this film, because, while not a "typical" Coen Brothers film, it reveals more and more depth when you peel back the layers of the storytelling onion. I suppose, in that way, it's very much a Coen Brothers film. The duo are nothing if not crafty at making movies about one thing that are really about another. And that's the beauty of it. Perhaps no two viewers will walk away with the same interpretation as I had, but I doubt anyone will be left wanting with such a layered, satisfying film. If this review feels long, that wasn't my intention, but when discussing such an extraordinary piece of filmmaking that reveals more and more things to admire with every reflection on it, it's hard not to feel like you're discovering some great treasure. And what a treasure it is.
As always, have at it in the comments section. The film opens everywhere December 22nd.