One of the biggest changes in the American film landscape over time has been the decline of the western. The genre once comprised a ludicrous percentage of the overall film output due to their cheap production costs and limited locations, and most of the films were shot on movie ranches in Southern California. And though the number of theatrical westerns has dramatically fallen since the 1980’s, there has been a bit of a resurgence in the past few years. Movies like Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and the modern day Coen Brothers western No Country For Old Men have been welcome additions to the genre, continuing a mini-revival sparked by Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Best Picture winner.
I’ve got some good news: the classic western is back. True Grit is one of the best films of 2010. Ostensibly a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film of the same name – one which earned The Duke his only Academy Award – the Coen Brothers want to make it clear that a remake was actually not their intention. In a recent interview, they said they had seen the original film in theaters when they were kids but haven’t revisited it since then, and now only have a vague recollection of it. Their version is an adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, and remake or not, that detail is entirely inconsequential; this is easily one of my favorite movies of the year, one in which I got that feeling I’m lucky to get a few times a year when I know I’m watching something special. With this movie in theaters and Red Dead Redemption tearing up video game consoles, 2010 is a great year for westerns.
It’s strange seeing a pure, classic western out of the Coens so soon after their modern take on the genre won Best Picture only three years ago. It’s undoubtedly “their” movie, with all of the brothers’ trademark dark humor and gorgeous cinematography from collaborator Roger Deakins, but at times it felt as if this was a western from the mind of Quentin Tarantino. The dialogue was highly stylized and removed contractions from the equation almost entirely (providing some very funny moments thanks to the actors’ delivery), with a rapid-fire barter scene between young Mattie Ross and a horse dealer standing out as a highlight. Like Inglourious Basterds, I was surprised how much of the movie was people sitting around talking, but also surprised at how intriguing the film was in spite of that. It shares one more thing with the work of QT: True Grit is punctuated by points of shocking violence, and because they’re so sparse, it lends real meaning to those scenes, making them feel as if they truly matter.
The biggest surprise for me was the phenomenal performance by relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, appearing in her first major film and easily holding her own against some of the most intimidating actors in Hollywood. True, her character is extraordinarily well-written, but it takes a special kind of talent from a thirteen-year-old girl to pull off a convincing performance like this; I’m predicting big things from this girl in the future. And I’m not just saying this to be nice, either: if there were more than five nominees in the Best Actress category, I’d say she was a lock for a nomination. Heck, she still might be – although there’s very little chance of a win, she still deserves all the praise she will surely receive for her work here. Regardless of professional accolades, she delivers one of my personal favorite performances of the entire year.
The rest of the cast, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, was outstanding as well. Jeff Bridges makes the iconic character of Rooster Cogburn his own, grumbling and slurring his way through the film. For the awards-obsessed out there, it’s very possible Bridges could repeat as Best Actor, a feat not accomplished since Tom Hanks did it in ’93 (Philadelphia) and ’94 (Forrest Gump). For those who’ve seen the original True Grit and are wondering if the famous “fill your hands, you sons of bitches!” scene is represented here, the answer is yes; it’s a testament to Bridges that he can separate himself so much from one of the most famous characters in western history while participating in many of the same story beats as the original film.
The villains were equally enjoyable. Josh Brolin, though he doesn’t get much screen time, is effective as Tom Chaney, the man who killed Mattie’s father. He’s a man mentioned many times throughout the film but who doesn’t appear until near the end, allowing the audience to build up our own vision of what this character might be like based on hearsay from other characters in the film (see: The Third Man). But Chaney turns out to be alternatively idiotic and terrifying. He’s a moronic psychopath, and since you never know what they’re going to do, there’s no kind more dangerous. In a convenient bit of casting, the underrated Barry Pepper (seriously Hollywood, get this guy some more work) plays a man with the same last name – “Lucky” Ned Pepper, the leader of Brolin’s gang of outlaws. He’s not the biggest guy in real life or on screen, but he commands respect with his presence in this movie and you can tell the much larger Tom Chaney fears him; it’s a small part, but an important one and one in which Pepper is easily able to excel.
The dusty landscapes and snow-covered settings were captured wonderfully by Roger Deakins, certainly inspired here by classic westerns in the look and tone of the cinematography. One shot in particular, of Rooster Cogburn framed in the entrance of a mine cart shaft, is a direct homage to John Ford’s iconic shot in The Searchers. Deakins keeps his camera still unless it’s absolutely necessary to move it. This is not a Scorsese picture in which the camera slowly rotates around a group as people converse; this is straightforward filmmaking, allowing the audience to savor the locales and expansive backdrops and have a perfect sense of geography at all times.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a score quite like this one. Carter Burwell composed the score, but nearly every song – and that’s not an exaggeration – is a riff on the old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It’s really weird to hear, since it comes up every few minutes in the movie in a different form – slower, faster, more piano, more strings – but it’s all essentially the same song. It’s not bad; in fact, I think it worked very well and absolutely added to the atmosphere of the movie. It just struck me as strange, since I can’t think of another score offhand that is so heavily inspired by just one song.
I need to see this movie again to discuss it more thoroughly. I was so sucked in by the characters and wave after wave of awesome scenes (the opening hanging in the square, the courtroom questioning, the list goes on) that I found myself almost unable to watch the movie with a critical eye because I was enjoying it too freaking much. When you see as many movies as I do (and I presume if you’re reading this, you might), you know how rare this reaction is.
It’s hard to credit the Coens for much originality here, considering their script is based heavily on Portis’ original novel. The thing about this movie, though, is that even though it isn’t entirely original, their take on the source material makes it feel brand new. Ultimately, isn’t that what matters? The visceral feeling of watching a movie? Isn’t that why we watch movies in the first place? In the tradition of the 1969 film, the Coen Brothers have crafted a smart movie that breaks from conventions and presents a highly personalized look at the Old West and the notions of law and retribution in society. It’s also way funnier than the serious trailers make it out to be – in fact, the humor was my favorite part of the entire film. Even with the Coens impressive resume, I’d rank True Grit as one of my favorite films from the talented siblings. I’d highly recommend everyone check this one out over the holidays. Until next time…