It makes perfect sense for the Coen brothers to direct a period western. They've danced around one for years, with modernist takes on the genre like "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men," while tirelessly exploring the early side of the twentieth century elsewhere in their work. "True Grit," however, is their first giant leap into the past. In fact, outside of a vignette that opens their 2009 film "A Serious Man," the winter of 1878, where "True Grit" begins, is a frontier for both the characters and the filmmakers.
I'm of the mind that the Coens, who have now impressively released four films in four consecutive years, benefit from occasionally stepping outside their comfort zone. "True Grit" is a fascinating experiment in that regard, though in adapting Charles Portis' 1968 novel for the screen (and mindful I'm sure of the John Wayne adaptation to which their film would inevitably be compared), Joel and Ethan Coen contribute less of themselves than might be expected. Granted, the dark humor and caustic irony that run throughout are distinctly Coen brothers additions, but perhaps more so than any of their other films, their latest is a mostly opaque effort.
Still, the pair have some interesting notes on the genre, and perhaps what's most remarkable about "True Grit" is its characters. Westerns are typically full of cookie-cutter cowboys and predictable protagonists, but the Coens go almost out of their way to avert any and all cliché. From the brilliant performance of newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a fiercely intelligent 14-year old, to Jeff Bridges' stiff, guttural take on Wayne's oscar-winning role, it's clear the importance the brothers place on character, and the care they take in realizing them.
Probably the most immediately recognizable 'Coen-esque' personage is Matt Damon as a flamboyant Texas Ranger too big for his britches. The duo love ironic dichotomy, and from the misguided entitlement Damon provokes as the ludicrously named La Boeuf, to his silly cowboy getups, ceaseless boasting, and general ineptitude, Damon rounds out a classic Coen archetype.
When you strip away the characters, what remains of "True Grit" is a fundamental but effective western revenge tale. If the film at all disappoints, it is because the Coens' stories are usually multi-faceted affairs with layer upon layer of nuance. Their most famous works are so busy that the utter simplicity of "True Grit" comes as something of a surprise. Taken on its own, however, the film more than holds its own among the many other revivalist westerns released over the past few years.
And come to think of it, a tale loaded with heavy themes like vengeance, redemption, and justice doesn't need to be artificially inflated with subplots to support them. In fact, one of the reasons the western genre provides such viscerally satisfying experiences is precisely because it tends to wear its motifs on its sleeve. Part of our fascination with that era too comes from the simplicity it entails.
But beyond the mechanisms of its success, the most important triumph of "True Grit" is that it delivers on its promise of six-gun badassery with a heart. Jeff Bridges is awesome as a decrepit Rooster Cogburn, and the begrudging respect he develops for Ross gives the gunfights weight. The last fifteen minutes of the film are beautiful and unforgettable.
"True Grit" doesn't rock the boat as much as "A Serious Man" or offer the same fascinating level of character complexity as "Fargo," but it is nevertheless an important landmark in the Coen brothers' career. They've conquered yet another frontier, and it's as exciting as ever to imagine which they'll turn to next.