True Grit (2010) – Directed by the Coen Brothers – Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Elizabeth Marvel, and J.K. Simmons.
I have a memory. Perhaps it’s not a true memory anymore, but I like it, so I keep it. In this memory, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are reviewing Martin Scorsese’s Casino, and Siskel is being rather critical of the film. Ebert doesn’t like this, says it’s a fine film, and Siskel says something like, “For anyone else, this movie would be an ‘A,’ but for Scorsese, it’s a ‘C.’”
I love that quote because it gets to the idea of expectations. The greater the director, the more we want out of them, which I think is both completely fair and completely unfair. Do we really want our best directors to go away for three or four years and then come back with a masterpiece every single time? That just can’t happen, and we’re gonna end up disappointed more often than not when we get a perfectly fine film like Casino, whose biggest crime is that it’s not Goodfellas. But do we want them to churn out product just because they’re brilliant and they can? That way leads to unmemorable if enjoyable films like Spielberg’s The Terminal or Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead.
Or the Coen Brothers’ TRUE GRIT.
Don’t get me wrong – TRUE GRIT is a fine movie and well worth a spin in your player of choice, but it’s a movie that’s worth watching solely because of the performances of Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld and not because of anything that you might associate with a Coen Brothers’ film. TRUE GRIT is a straight western, not a Coen Brothers’ spin on a western, and the result is a flat story that exists solely to be the stage to get as much of Bridges doing Rooster Cogburn and Steinfeld doing Mattie, as possible.
It’s a fine film but it’s not even a singularly great Western, and this is where expectations can hamper a film. You hear that the Coens are doing a western (and old west western, not a contemporary western like No Country for Old Men), and you start wanting to be able to say things like, “This was the best western since Eastwood’s Unforgiven,” but you can’t say that. For one, Unforgiven is one of the ten or twenty greatest films ever made, but more than that, Unforgiven is a movie that has aspirations to be a great film, to be “the final western,” while TRUE GRIT seems to be made with the intent of doing something serious but small, to be enjoyable rather than epic.
In that regard, TRUE GRIT is a huge success because I couldn’t really get enough of watching Bridges and Steinfeld interact. Matt Damon is his usual terrific self, seamlessly transforming himself into the almost dime-store Texas Ranger LaBeouf. GRIT succeeds as a battle of forceful personalities – the stubborn Cogburn, the stubborn Steinfeld, and the surprisingly stubborn LaBeouf. When you first see LaBeouf you think he’s on loan from a Wild West show – his clothing is more costume than outfit and unlike Cogburn he’s clearly interested in his own appearance, and you just know that he’s going to be revealed as a soft phony. Well, he’s a bit of a phony, but he’s not soft, and it’s pleasurably disconcerting to see him stand toe-to-toe with Cogburn, even if they are fighting over the loyalty of a 14-year old girl.
LaBouef’s focus on his own appearance masks a withering self-doubt; he’s been on Tom Chaney’s (Josh Brolin) tail for months without success, and it’s a matter of pride for him that he hasn’t yet caught Chaney. Mattie calls him on this before she’s even hired Cogburn, and LaBeouf’s reaction is to lash out (literally) at the young girl. He has one of the best lines of the film when he tells her, “You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements. While I sat there watchin’ I gave some thought to stealin’ a kiss, though you are very young, and sick, and unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.”
Mattie’s response? “One would be just as pleasant as the other,” she snaps back.
LaBeouf’s self-loathing, which manifests in his focused interest in his own appearance, also gives him critical insight into others. He might not have Cogburn’s skill or experience, but he has his backbone. When the two men get in one particular spat, Cogburn insults the Rangers, and then insults LaBeouf’s horse by calling it a sheep. The insult is clear – “Everything about you is for show and is soft, LaBeouf: your self, your job, your horse.” LaBeouf gives right back, telling Cogburn that his shaggy horse will still be running when Cogburn’s big American steed is winded. Knowing that LaBeouf has scored a point, he snaps, “This is like women talking,” to end the conversation. LaBeouf knows that Cogburn’s real target isn’t to score points against him but to score points with Mattie, and calls Cogburn on it, which leads to the final, winning blow from the older man: “I think she’s got you pretty well figured.”
Up through this conversation, TRUE GRIT’s simple plot is carried along by the performances, but after this spat LaBeouf splits for the second time, Mattie conveniently runs into Chaney down at the river, and then the film rushes through it’s most complex plot (Mattie captured by Lucky Ned, held for collateral, left with Chaney, falls down a hole, bit by a snake, rescued, taken to safety by Cogburn in the film’s most emotionally stirring sequence), almost as if it’s now bored with what it’s doing, or as if the reason it was here – for the stubborn Cogburn and stubborn Steinfeld to interact – has now been taken from it.
What do I ultimately make of TRUE GRIT? Do the expectations of it being a Coen Brothers’ film help or hurt it? There’s nothing here than you can’t find done just as well in other westerns, but the beauty of this being a Coen Brothers’ film is that 1) they can get talents like Bridges and Damon to show up and act the hell out of a simple script, and 2) they know when not to get in the way. As disappointing as it is that there’s hardly nothing “Coen Brothers” about this movie, they’re also smart enough and assured enough to not force themselves onto this movie. TRUE GRIT is a simple genre piece acted at a level far above the material. If there’s anything unique about what it does to the genre, it’s the use of Mattie and squeezing the chase for Chaney down into the center of the movie, making it less important to the film than either the antagonistic set-up and the emotional conclusion.
That TRUE GRIT can’t compete with the finest examples of the genre doesn’t make it a bad movie by any stretch, but it doesn’t particularly stand above films like Open Range, Kevin Costner’s finest western and most underrated work, or the much-derided Kurt Russell film, Tombstone, which has it’s problems but like TRUE GRIT also has a few fantastic performances to carry you along.