Joel and Ethan Cohen are my favorite filmmakers. They always manage to create interesting, unusual, highly memorable films filled with funny, original characters. Some of their films are better than others, but they are all good, offering us glimpses into strange worlds pulled from the minds of this duo. And they are on quite a streak, producing a series of films remarkable for even this team. Their latest, "True Grit" reunites them with Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin, adding Matt Damon and a remarkable performance from newcomer Hallie Steinfeld to create one of their best films yet.
Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) arrives in town to deal with her father's death at the hands of the coward Tom Chaney (Brolin) who has most certainly fled into the neighboring Indian country. The young lady, accompanied by a family servant, makes her way to the undertakers, quickly identifies her father's remains and makes preparations for the servant to accompany the body back home. Mattie has other plans and intends to stay in town for a few days. She quickly learns U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) is in town and it takes some work, but she eventually gains a face to face meeting and explains she wants to track down Chaney and bring him back to justice. Cogburn is reluctant, so she turns to Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Damon) who is already in town to apprehend the same man for other violations. The two men eventually agree to work together and help the young woman.
The Coen Brothers have apparently used the original book as the basis for their new film, keeping the original John Wayne vehicle at arm's length. I have never seen the original, not a fan of the Duke, but I have to believe this newer version is a more accurate depiction of life in the Old West. And closer to the original book as well. I just can't believe John Wayne's Cogburn is introduced in the same way as Bridge's interpretation. And the Coens have populated the story with unusual, interesting characters, characters who look and act like you would expect people living in the Old West to act. At one point, Rooster and Mattie cross paths with Bear Man, a self-proclaimed veterinarian, doctor and dentist. The man, wearing a bear fur with the bear's head sitting on his head, talks in a slow, halting way, much like someone who has little interaction with other people might. It must seem strange for him to speak, let alone see and interact with others when he spends so much time on the trail alone. They meet a small handful of people, each different and unusual, each affected by life in the Old West..
For that matter, this is part of the reason Bridges' portrayal is, well, kind of brilliant. From the moment we first hear Rooster, Bridges perfectly embodies the character; Cogburn has spent so much time on the trail, alone, he has difficulty relating to others as we currently feel would be proper. But in his day and age, Cogburn maybe came into contact with hundreds of people over the course of his life. There simply weren't that many people then. It is difficult for him to come up with a pleasantry when Bear Man makes an appearance. Instead, his first words are "You are not LaBeouf", as though it is Bear Man's fault he is not who they were looking for.
Matt Damon plays Texas Ranger LaBeouf, a man who seems desperate to uphold the romantic ideals of his organization. In town to bring Chaney to justice, he agrees to help Mattie in her quest for justice. When he and Cogburn begin working together, it quickly becomes clear the two men would prefer to continue working alone. But LaBeouf adapts and even seems to enjoy the company. Cogburn, on the other hand, does not adapt so well and the other man's constant chatter gets under his skin, causing him to become even more ornery.
Damon is just about always good and LaBeouf is an interesting character. At one point, the Ranger experiences some physical challenges which he quickly overcomes and these only seem to make him more steadfast and determined. Damon is able to make us believe he is experiencing these problems for real keeping them in our mind throughout, helping LaBeouf really stand out.
Josh Brolin's portrayal of Chaney is good, but it is little more than a cameo. There are more than a few instances of high profile actors taking on small, pivotal roles in films; Chaney is the reason for the film, yet we actually only live with him for a few minutes. Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now" and Orson Welles' Harry Lime in "The Third Man" are the best examples of this type of role. On the one hand, his character is very important and you feel like you know enough. On the other, you want to get to know more about him. Because of the importance of his character, it makes no sense to let an unknown actor play the role.
Hallie Steinfeld does a remarkably good job as Mattie Ross. From the moment we first lay eyes on her, we know she is a very mature young lady. She quickly sends the family servant away, essentially leaving her to her own devices, to survive on her own in the Old West, to handle her dead father's affairs. Our initial concerns about a fourteen year old on her own in the frontier are quickly put to rest as we witness how well she deals with the men in this world. If she can conquer these men, nothing will stand in her way. Strangely, she seems to have more trouble with the few women she encounters; the owner of her father's boarding house welcomes her to her ample bosom yet is unable to meet her simple requests.
This year two of the best performances in film have come from two young newcomers. Earlier this summer, Jennifer Lawrence was mesmerizing in "Winter's Bone" as another young woman forced to be an adult before her time. If you haven't seen "Winter's Bone" you are missing out on one of the best films of the year. In most years, we would be lucky to have one such great performance. It is a treat to have two.
The Coen Brothers have worked overtime to bring such a high level of attention to detail to the film. The film begins with an Iris Open effect, commonly used in silent film, and when Mattie arrives in the small town, we feel as though we have stepped back in time to join her. This essentially allows the brothers to lead us into this new world with the heroine. Later, a discussion between Cogburn and LaBeouf contains, a co-worker tells me, references to real skirmishes in the Civil War, giving us deeper insight into their characters. We witness a trial involving Cogburn as a witness, giving us a glimpse into many other facets of life in the Old West.
The Coen Brothers earned their reputation for a series of off the wall, almost slapstick comedies filled with eccentric, strange characters. In the last few years, they have shifted their focus towards a more diverse selection of stories. "Fargo" is a very funny movie, but it also deals with a lot of human pain. "No Country for Old Men" is a frightening tale of revenge and the efforts of one man to stop the killer. "A Serious Man" is a deeply introspective look at a college professor in the 60s, a man who seems to have been inspired by some of their father's own history. "Man" is a real puzzle; strange and hard to decipher, I have seen the film three times and appreciate it more each time. Now with "True Grit", they turn to a story perfect for their sensibilities. It allows them to explore a violent, at times humorous, tale filled with strange and unusual characters.
"True Grit" is the perfect Coen Brothers' vehicle and a great example of their skill and craft.