I am officially reversing my stance on Westerns. Previously, I’ve been dismissive of what I perceived as an inherently archaic genre celebrating “the violent, lawless wilderness breached by the noble forces of civilization.” Even Westerns that rejected that model seemed trapped in the paradigm, like Dances With Wolves, which reverses the polarity but is, in many ways, just as simplistic. The brilliant, prematurely canceled TV series Deadwood—with its much more complicated, nuanced view of the conflicts between “wilderness” and “civilization”—made me reconsider, but I eventually judged it the exception that proves the rule. But True Grit has finally convinced me that it’s quite possible to tell a Western without that problematic wilderness/civilization binary overwhelming the drama.
The nineteenth-century frontier setting in True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie, is entirely traditional—it’s a place of adventure, danger, and possibilities—but there’s not the sense of it being a place of darkness in contrast to light elsewhere (or vice versa). Maybe I overestimated the weight of the baggage from decades of Westerns past—or maybe I’m underestimating it now—but Grit feels alive and free in a way I hadn’t expected from the genre. I’m happy to be wrong.
Like the 1969 movie that famously won John Wayne his only Oscar, this Grit is based on the novel by Charles Portis—though the Coens’ version is supposedly more faithful. Here Jeff Bridges takes on Wayne’s old role playing Rooster Cogburn, a drunk, not particularly principled U.S. marshal hired by a young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to track down her father’s murderer. There isn’t any mystery about the killer’s identity—Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) was seen committing the crime—but he’s escaped into Indian territory, and local law enforcement isn’t motivated to track him down. Chaney is being tracked by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) for other violent crimes, but Mattie distrusts the Texan and wants Chaney hanged specifically for murdering her father. She’s been told Cogburn is merciless, so she bribes, cajoles, and browbeats the man into taking the job and even joins him on the trek into Indian territory to see it done.
It’s no surprise to see Bridges deliver a blusterily charismatic performance or to watch Damon find all the right comic notes in his role, but fourteen-year-old Steinfeld is a virtual unknown and she’s nothing short of brilliant in Grit. Mattie is a complicated character: prim and self-righteous but admirably resourceful and perseverant. The other characters tend to underestimate her, thinking she’s nothing but a little girl, and it’s terrific fun to see them put in their place—but we the audience tend to overestimate her, to forget that she is, in fact, a little girl, and Steinfeld repeatedly jerks us out of that. Her Mattie is straight-backed and iron-willed, but she can be acutely vulnerable too, scared and bewildered or just poignantly childish, as when she tries to interest Cogburn and LaBoeuf in telling ghost stories like those she heard on a hunting trip with her dad. Steinfeld wraps Mattie’s contradictions into a ridiculously charming, cohesive whole and handles the movie’s thick, theatrical language with naturalistic ease. Her performance is absolutely vital to the success of the movie—we have to understand why Cogburn and LaBoeuf develop grudging respect for such a disobedient, sharp-tongued girl—and Steinfeld makes it work.
Thank god, too, because I can’t bear to think of True Grit falling flat with a subpar Mattie—there’s so much else to love about it! The Coens’ screenplay glories in stylized “old timey” speech that achieves a kind of poetry in its hyper-composed formality and unexpected diction. The epilogue is probably a misstep (the lack of both Steinfeld and Bridges makes it feel anticlimactic and unsatisfying), but other than that, Grit serves up one gem of a scene after another with vivid language and eccentric character sketches.
And it’s a joy to look at too. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives us stunning vistas, dramatically lit nighttime scenes, and—toward the end of the movie—a sequence of stunning, almost hallucinatory beauty. Many Westerns appear burnt out and stark, but Grit’s look, for all its historic detail (and its eagerness to grunge up pretty boys like Damon and Barry Pepper), is so sumptuous, unclouded, and inviting that it sometimes conjures up an elusive fairy-tale quality.
The Coens are nothing if not craftsmen, of course. Even their lesser movies are impeccably shot, expertly put together, and terrifically stylish, but that style sometimes glosses over narrative wheel-spinning and meaninglessness. (Burn After Reading, for example, left a sour taste in my mouth.) So what really makes True Grit stand out is its thoughtful storytelling and its surprisingly warm sense of humor. Not since Fargo (and okay, The Big Lebowski, though that one isn’t one of my favorites) have the Coens been this funny without breaking into a sneer.
Watching the Coens try their hand at a variety of adaptations over the past decade has been interesting. When they tell someone else’s story, they lose some of the strange piquancy that has made classics such as Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski so wholly their own. But No Country for Old Men (which I appreciated much more on second viewing when I wasn’t so strung out on the tension) and now True Grit have the Coens’ stamp along with their own special brand of greatness, demonstrating an ever-expanded range along with the expected virtuosity. The Coens’ original films are always fascinating, even when I don’t completely get them (my brow was probably furrowed for at least a third of The Man Who Wasn’t There), but I’m just as fascinated with their adaptations: what they choose to retell and how. Plus, they’ve now made me see an entire genre with new eyes. I’m giving up a soapbox! Few people can make me do that.