True Grit Review
The Coen Brother’s True Grit starts off dark screened with a mournful piano seemingly lifted from Ken Burn’s The Civil War and brightens briefly with a quote from Proverbs: “The wicked flee when none pursueth”. The screen darkens once again and rises into the 1870’s dark of a mid-west winter’s night in the aftermath of a murder. A body lies on the ground. Snow flurries. The heroine voices steady the events over the action. From its opening chords True Grit pulls the viewer into a parable of justice and revenge. Both are shown to have their costs, eyes for eyes. This film as fable has motive and direction from the very first shot. True economy.
True Grit rotates on Maddie, the narrator and 14 year-old daughter of the murder victim. She is bent on justice in a hardscrabble wilderness. This is a west scaled to man not to the grand geological features of Monument Valley. Man, a creature that seems to congregate and flourish wherever there is the least bit of water much like mold.
True Grit fits into the Coen Brother’s expanding body of work. Their scripts are not scripts of painful labor, deadlines, script-writing programs or marketing demands but of self-amusement. At the end of their day, they can be satisfied not only with the product but the process undergone. Within this body there is a consistency of world-view.
Flawlessly cast with a central performance by Jeff Bridges as U.S. Marshall, Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn, a booze-soaked, stained bloat of a man who has played so long by his own rules that he has no need to incorporate anyone else’s. There are no witnesses in the wilderness. In the scene where we are first introduced to him he is giving testimony to a packed courtroom concerning the deaths of two men he was sent to arrest. Things did not turn out well for these men. We meet him at the same time Maddie does so whatever she knows, we know.
Hailee Steinfeld as Maddie turns in an engaging performance as the fourteen year-old protagonist who embodies True Grit in her every word and action. Throughout the film she wins the begrudging respect of all she encounters- be it a slick horse trader or the hard-nosed criminals she must face in her quest. Matt Damon is spot on as is Dakin Mathews as Colonel Stonehill, the hard-nosed horse trader who meets his match in Maddie. Barry Pepper inhabits the sinewy criminal Lucky Ned Pepper. Kudos to the casting director, Ellen Chenoweth and her staff for a job well done.
The Coen Brothers are the heirs apparent to the works of the American director and writer, Preston Sturges. If you haven’t had an opportunity to see Sullivan’s Travels I highly recommend it for its blend of snappy dialogue and frenetic chase sequences. Successfully combining the two worlds of silent movies and talkies. Sturges pronounced a comedic hierarchy that he more or less adhered to throughout his career.
A pretty girl is better than a plain one
A leg is better than an arm
A bedroom is better than a living room
An arrival is better than a departure
A birth is better than a death
A dog is better than a landscape
A kitten is better than a dog
A baby is better than a kitten
A kiss is better than a baby
A pratfall is better than anything.
Joel and Ethan Coen may not follow all the rules as established by Stuges but they do abide by the very last line. Their slapstick comedy ends with what the reality would likely be should these events take place in the real world. It’s inspired homicidal slapstick. Nobody dies dull in this film and the deaths oddly form a reliable comic relief. The Coen Brothers have seemingly added a line of their own….”A fatal pratfall is better that a pratfall”.
To sit and watch one of their films is to lean forward with a combination of bemusement and apprehension. True Grit does not disappoint. It’s a lot of fun.