Have Joel and Ethan Coen really never made a Western before?
For all their dabbling in traditional Hollywood genres, the filmmaker brothers haven’t officially saddled up until now – with a remake of a 1969 John Wayne vehicle, no less. That’s surprising, considering they’ve already dissected the film noir, gangster and screwball comedy genres, to name only a few.
What’s even more surprising, though, is that True Grit is more than a Coen brothers’ Western. In other words, this isn’t only a clever, meticulous deconstruction of a genre’s tropes. This is a real Western, the kind we don’t get much anymore. It doesn’t only comment on the giants of the genre; it can stand alongside them.
Jeff Bridges steps in for Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, a perpetually soused U.S. marshal who is a pretty good shot (if an indiscriminate one) when he manages to put the jug down. It’s this merciless reputation that leads 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to hire him to track down the crook who killed her father.
From the harsh moral codes of Miller’s Crossing to the cruel, unseen God of A Serious Man, the Coens have always been Old Testament filmmakers. That’s at the forefront here. True Grit opens with a quote from Proverbs, later references Ezekiel and is propelled throughout by a quest for righteous vengeance (an eye for an eye and all that). What grace there is can be found in the ghostly variations of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” an 1880s gospel hymn that is woven through the movie.
None of this feels tongue in cheek, as the spirituals occasionally did in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? Even the violence, which has often gone hand in hand with humor in their oeuvre, unfolds without any snarky exclamation points. The sorrowful opening image of True Grit – a painterly shot of Mattie’s father lying dead on the ground as snow lightly falls – is a pure vision of grim beauty. There isn’t a joke in the frame.
This isn’t to say that True Grit weighs a ton. Lightening things throughout is the wittily eloquent dialogue. The Coens’ delicious lines are spit out by the impressive young Steinfeld, growled by Bridges with just the right serving of ham and babbled by a hilarious Matt Damon as a cocky Texas Ranger who joins the cause. A stakeout talk between John Wayne and the young Kim Darby was the highlight of the original film, and conversations also prove to be some of the more treasured moments here.
True Grit is a Coen brothers treasure, up there with No Country for Old Men and Miller’s Crossing, my personal favorite. Thematic bleakness and artistic beauty are their hallmarks, often for better, occasionally for worse. Yet only a few of their films – for that matter, few Westerns – are as bleakly beautiful as this.