I caught an advance screening of the Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest on Tuesday. I wouldn’t say it’s one of the essential entries in the Coen Brothers library, but that’s really just a way of saying it was merely excellent instead of a classic. Of the two revisionist Westerns they’ve made so far, I suspect No Country For Old Men will be the one that lives on.
Partly that’s because True Grit is much more of a movie than No Country For Old Men. The latter film wholly committed to the Coen Brothers sensibility at its most dour, eschewing the comfortable rhythm and pleas for sympathy that characterize most Hollywood films in favor of unpredictability and clinical detachment from its characters. True Grit has a bit of that, particularly in its first act, but it remains the closest thing to an audience-friendly, mainstream feature that the brothers have produced in years.
That said, it bares little resemblance to the generic revenge thriller its marketing campaign promises. As I wrote over on the Ms. blog, the trailers and TV spots downplay the fact that this is very far from an ensemble film: while Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin all turn in fine performances (though Brolin’s is more of a cameo), fourteen year-old Mattie Ross is the undisputed center of the movie.
While the movie around her isn’t among the Coen Brothers’ best, Mattie is one of their more memorable characters. I don’t think they can claim much of the credit, though. Most of it goes to Charles
Porter Portis (author of the novel from which both this movie and the 1969 feature of the same name were adapted) and, of course, the phenomenal Hailee Steinfeld, seen here in her feature debut. While Steinfeld is physically dwarfed by the supporting cast, she has a commanding presence to compete with all of them. What really sells her in the role are her terrifically expressive eyes: cold and appraising of everything around her at the start of them, but gradually widening and softening as she realizes the danger she’s placed herself in. Very few child actors could convincingly convey that sense of toughness, much less the subtle transition in those moments where she lets her guard down.
That’s especially crucial, because the Coens do something with Mattie that they do with very few of their characters: they get the audience emotionally invested. Detractors of the Coen Brothers often complain about their evident contempt for their characters, which is certainly fair in some cases (re: Burn After Reading, though there I would argue the contempt is well-earned and part of what makes the movie great), but more often just a misdiagnosis of the clinical detachment I brought up earlier. Either way, it’s exceedingly rare that they let an audience get close to a character like they do here. It makes the film feel uncharacteristically warm, especially in the relationship between Mattie and Bridges’ Marshal Cogburn.
That’s one of the pleasant surprises afforded by the movie. The other one is just how funny it is. This is no bleak slog like No Country, and while the humor is sometimes gallows-flavored (especially in one scene that takes place at some gallows), most of the laughs stem from Raising Arizona-style gentle tweaking. Damon’s Ranger La Boeuf takes the brunt of this, and Damon gamely commits to both the character’s gallantry and his vanity in equal measure.
But while the Coen Brothers are gentler here than in, say, Miller’s Crossing, this is still a fairly grim movie at heart. And while it will probably be more palatable for the general moviegoing audience than a lot of the Coen Brothers library, that’s not really saying much. Warmth isn’t the same thing as sentimentality, and this movie — especially the ending — is unsentimental to the point of brutality. Thank god for that, too. This movie may be the Coen Brothers’ love letter to American Westerns, but they never let genre convention get in the way of its raw emotional core.