“With True Grit the Coen-brothers have managed to revitalize a long dead genre with their trademark jovial dialogue and colorful characters.”
The Western genre would seem to have gotten somewhat of a revitalisation these past couple of years. With the newly released The Hateful Eight and The Revenant both being high profile films directed by critically acclaimed film directors and with plenty of smaller films being released such as the Danish produced Salvation and the upcoming Jane Got a Gun, the Western genre seems to have gotten back into the conversation.
These films, especially Tarantinos’ three modern takes on the genre – Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight – seem to take their inspiration from a very specific subgenre of the Western namely the Spaghetti Western popularised in the late 60’s and 70’s by Italian films such as Once Upon A Time in the West, Django and the Dollar trilogy. These films were revisionist reconstructions of the almost mythical American idea of the Old West as it was shown in novels, films and TV-series from the 30’s to late 50’s. They were nihilistic, violent exploitation films in which tyrants were allowed to abuse the lack of governmental supervision and the legendary gunslingers and cowboys were shown as being flawed, compromised individuals and were backed up by the operatic score of one Ennio Morricone and shot in the barren plains of tax free Spain.
In this respect, True Grit (2010) written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen is somewhat of an outlier. Far less violent and socially scathing than the likes of Sam Peckinpahs The Wild Bunch or Sergio Leones The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, True Grit has much more in common with the John Wayne-starring Western films which were more a tribute to Americas very own ‘Golden Age.’ That’s somewhat fitting seeing as how the film is a remake of the John Wayne-starring film of the same name from ’69.
Like the original, True Grit follows the 14-year old farm girl Mattie Ross seeking revenge for the death of her father killed by the criminal Tom Chaney. Finding reluctant aid in the drunken, one-eyed bounty hunter Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the arrogant Texas marshall LaBeouf, played by the always excellent Matt Damon, she gives chase to the criminal and his band through the Native American territories of Arkansas.
As with other, older Westerns these lone gunslingers are shown as just in their cause and while both Cogburn and LaBeouf are flawed characters they are ultimately both sympathetic and wholly skilled at their profession only held back by the restrictions of governmental agencies. This naïve outlook on the Old West is somewhat of a risky move in the more progressive time of today than when the original came out in 69. Plenty of modern Westerns have stirred some amount of controversy such as Django Unchained’s cartoonish characters and violence contrasted with its serious thematic backdrop. However, most have chosen to depict the Confederate States as villains and address the issues of the day – in particular the abhorrent racism towards African-Americans and Native Americans – upfront. True Grit, however, steers almost completely clear of these issues. They are clearly pushed to the background adding flavour and believability to this period film more than they are here for thematic purposes.
This balancing act of not antagonising the Confederate States but at the same time not appearing wholly ignorant of the issues present is perhaps the film’s most successful feat. This is mostly due to the Coen brothers’ trademark ability to make relatable, goodhearted and funny scenarios out of the most oppressing of situations and unsympathetic characters. Even Tom Chaney and his band of misfits are shown to be nothing more than desperate cowards and dimwitted fools caught up in a bad situation.
The film also manages to at least make it seem like the three protagonists in general aren’t wholly unsympathetic and racist as they are all shown to be respectable towards minorities as is the case when Mattie has a brief conversation with what is clearly the family’s house slave. In general, the young Mattie Ross absolutely steals the show. Her pragmatic and intelligent demeanor contrasted with the brutish men of the picture is a delight. It’s a very different take on a protagonist in a genre that is almost exclusively populated by the kind of thugs and murderers which Cogburn in many ways represents. Hailey Steinfeld is excellent in the role as she is capable of the steely-eyed determination needed to make this peculiar character believable. At the same time though, she shows an impressive range for such a young actress making the emotional scenes have a much greater impact.
Other than the delightful characters and flavourful dialogue that comes expected with most of the Coen brothers’ filmography, their love of goofy, off-kilter characters, slapstick humour and awkward one-off situations are all present, though a bit less frequent than in some of their previous work such as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski. While infrequent these situations, such as a random meet-in with a softspoken Native American dentist help to make Mattie, LaBeouf and Cogburns trek through Arkansas’ backhill mountain areas feel more like a jovial road movie than a serious revenge tale. This again helps alleviate some of the tension that naturally comes from the fact that the film is rather old school in its depiction of The Old West.