Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Runtime: 110 min.
Violence and sarcasm are overvalued in the Coen Brothers’ reputation. Shallow evaluations of the Minnesota-born filmmaking team always, mistakenly, refer to Blood Simple, Fargo and Miller’s Crossing as career highpoints, as if to turn the Coens into elegantly acerbic hipsters, the Steely Dan of filmmakers. But their new film, a non-sarcastic remake of the 1969 Western True Grit, confirms the Coens’ underappreciated seriousness and their ongoing winning streak. True Grit’s neofolktale follows Mattie Ross, a 15-yearold girl out to avenge her father’s death by bringing his killer to justice or final judgment. It’s a sincere story on the personal costs of retribution; too good to be cheapened by those who want the Coens to ratify their own smartass cynicism.
As ever, the Coens outwit cynicism. They are slyly humorous—pairing officious little Mattie (Hailie Steinfeld) with Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), the booze-bag old bounty hunter she hires to help her manhunt—but they’re also concerned with moral consequences. More than simply a remake, this True Grit shows the Coens responding to the classical Western, a genre they updated in No Country For Old Men (still misunderstood as a serial killer spree rather than a film about difficult moral reckoning). In True Grit the Coens take on the myths by which Americans establish their customary principles. Mattie’s aggrieved innocence and determination thrusts her into a world of compromised virtue and desperation, interacting with Cogburn, Texas Ranger Labeouf (Matt Damon) and various wilderness miscreants encountered on the road. This American odyssey is textured with religious overtones from the hymn “Lean on Jesus,” introducing martyrdom in the dark opening image of a cabin lit only by a hearth fire that resembles a crucifix.
Through adult Mattie’s memorynarration, the Coens mournfully reexamine Wild West archetypes. This includes Henry Hathaway’s original film along with John Ford’s essential contribution to the Western’s legacy. At certain points, the Coens and ace cinematographer Roger Deakins evoke iconography from Ford’s 1957 The Searchers, which has become the cynic’s model for the Western’s depiction of race, violence and Manifest Destiny.
When Rooster looks into an abandoned mineshaft, his silhouette recalls The Searchers’ final image of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, memorably framed as an unregenerate outsider whose transgressions exempt him from communion in the American home. The Coens’ new image obliterates home, an unsentimental perspective, fully aware of the moral compromise Old Rooster, a white man who kicks little Indian children, represents. (“He is pitiless, double-tough.”) Later, that silhouetted viewpoint is repeated when Mattie commits an act of violence and falls into a pit, cast into a moral void: She lies trapped next to a human carcass with snakes slithering through its skeletal chest cavity.
Moments like this deepen the Coens’ vision beyond elegant hipster sarcasm. They stir a graver response than the dread critics cherish in Fargo and No Country For Old Men. The old-timer’s wisdom Sam Elliott parodied in The Big Lebowski is sincerely intended here. It’s part of a forgotten temperament, like the Coens’ fond use of period lingo and arch expressions (“He has abandoned me to a congress of louts”) that call up Mark Twain as much as The Bible for the traditional moral terms it implies. When Rooster cradles a delirious, snake-bitten Mattie, her struggling suggests a realistic resistance that Ford left out of the moment John Wayne rescues Natalie Wood in The Searchers. (“Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” sung in a voice that mixes anguish and longing, becomes a powerful spiritual, cultural plea.) Instead, the Coens’ rescue sequence imagines a fevered long night of American moral agony. (It was a daytime ride in the first version.)
This way, True Grit speaks to our current moment of vengeful, moral uncertainty. It continues the same revamped Americana that distinguished the Coens’ sophisticated remake of The Ladykillers—a truly original religiouspolitical hybrid. When Mattie sleeps in a mortuary, the story consecrates her existential stress (“I felt like Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones”), connecting cynicism to a spiritual, cultural foundation as in their half-satirical Yiddish prologue to A Serious Man. This view of the Western’s brutality challenges recent cultural standards regarding violence and sarcasm as established by Quentin Tarantino. Now, True Grit is no longer just a tall tale; it clarifies the Coens’ feelings about violence and America’s spiritual history.
After a confrontation with two suspicious men in a cabin, Rooster looks shocked at the up-close violence— something no Q.T. character ever does. And Mattie’s jolt at witnessing killing (“I was in the middle of it. It was a terrible thing to see”) restores the humane response that Tarantino nihilism has neglected. In Jonah Hex, Neveldine- Taylor’s Western reboot provided catharsis for its explosive vision of very modernseeming moral turpitude. The Coens’ depiction is not necessarily better, just subtler: Deakins’ exteriors contrast daylight in trees with moonlight spreading across a blasted landscape. It envisions the Western as American history’s moral testing ground. Bridges previously essayed this in Walter Hill’s 1995 Wild Bill, a more psychologically probing Western; here, he describes a complex, realistic figure within John Wayne’s mythic largeness. Moral complexity is the Coens’ point, as when Labeouf gets a man in his gunsights then prays before firing, like the sniper in Saving Private Ryan. Their genuine solemnity—and True Grit’s depth— comes through in Mattie’s old age but especially in the scene where a wounded Labeouf confesses to young Mattie, “I am considerably diminished.” It is a prophetic statement of what retribution does to the body as well as the soul.