Coens country is usually pretty dark territory, and True Grit is no exception to that. Visually striking (it shares a cinematic relationship with There Will Be Blood, the film that was controversially beaten to the top prize by No Country for Old Men) Roger Deakins re-explores the West with a loving indulgence befitting the ol’ Western tradition. If we look at his previous work on the superb The Assassination of Jesse James (…etc.) then we can see that he has progressed from a stylist filmmaker in this genre, to an innovative one. It’s a bit of a shame that the pace of the film doesn’t quite hold up to the quality of the cinematography, or performances for that matter, especially during a saggy middle section. All the same it’s a tasty proposition, albeit a blood spattered one.
The key element of True Grit is, as has been noted countless times, Haillee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the tenacious do-gooder out to avenge her father’s death. Sure, you’ve got the Dude in the iconic role of Rooster Cogburn, but it’s spunky little Mattie who outshines both Bridges and an excellent Matt Damon. How on earth Oscar consider her a supporting actress is beyond me, but I guess the ‘introducing Haillee Steinfeld’ credit has left her position weakened. Still, don’t be surprised if she picks up that top gong at the ceremony. Behind this triptych of spot on performances are a band of underwritten rogues led by a criminally cut Josh Brolin. I will be interested to see, when the DVD package comes around, what depth to his character got left on the cutting room floor. One assumes: quite a bit.
So where does True Grit lose its way? The answer is ‘only briefly’ but it’s a middle section where Mattie flits between the Dude and the Beef with the shameless indecision of a saloon hussy. During this time they make the same sort of ramshackle progress that is characteristic of other Coens’ films like Oh Brother Where Art Thou? This film, history will come to decide, fits as difficultly into the Coens’ canon as Intolerable Cruelty. As a Western it’s not as sophisticated or innovative as No Country for Old Men. As a Jeff Bridges performance it’ll never be as iconic as The Big Lebowski. But it’s certainly the brightest symbol of what the Coen brothers are fast becoming: the most assured and note perfect filmmakers working in Hollywood. This isn’t going to scoop any top prizes again, but it’s a film that no one else could have made half as well and proves what a safe pair (or is that pairs?) or hands they’ve become.
A wonderful triplet of performances anchors this beautiful and atmospheric picture, especially when it begins to start drifting away. Glorious, glossy and grand.