It’s a tough call as to which was the more disappointing result of the 2011 Academy Awards: That The King’s Speech took home anything whatsoever, or that True Grit became the biggest Oscar loser since Gangs of New York. No matter. Time—and good taste—will ensure that the better film is the one that won’t be forgotten. Many have complained that the Coens’ adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel wants for the filmmakers’ usual sense of ironic detachment (from which they’ve modestly departed in this outing), a problematic assessment not only for its implicit refusal to allow artistic change within a body of work, but damn near a deliberate misreading given this film’s scathingly tongue-in-cheek criticism of racist social norms in the early 20th century—a bitter humor made richer from the vantage of a supposedly post-racial society, where so many misguided liberal hearts think we’ve come further than we really have. Surely, the brothers play it overall much straighter than usual here, imbuing the proceedings with a formal classicism that equally honors the work of the cast as it does the quotidian prose of Portis’s text. Their unwavering sincerity and love for character is such that it complicates everything else they’ve achieved until now.
Some have called Portis’s text “the great American novel.” True Grit embodies that sentiment, suggesting something carved out of stone in generations past, echoing once-revolutionary values now taken for granted. At the center of it all is Mattie Ross, a prepubescent spitfire played by 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld in a tour-de-force performance. Smart, nimble, unfettered by gender norms, and not about to take shit from anyone, this tough cookie takes it upon herself to see that justice is leveled on one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, humorously twangy) after a drunken brawl with the man leaves her father dead. Wanting someone with the titular qualities to assist in her retribution, she seeks out Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a U.S. Marshall who “likes to pull a cork.” With the oscillating help and hindrance of a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) named LaBoeuf (pronounced “LaBeef”), they set out for the drifting fugitive, but the struggles here are as much internal as external. Revenge might be justified, says the sentimental story, but it’s undoubtedly something that comes at high costs; Mattie’s satisfying victory leads to her own immediate near-demise and lifelong disfigurement.
Yet despite a preoccupation with retribution, the film retains a barbed wit throughout. The Coens’ deliberately mannered storytelling suggests oral folklore handed down through the generations, shaped by time and the input of countless storytellers into a crowd-pleasing, well-rounded tradition. The sporadic levity of the film sometimes borders on the cartoonish, but that’s acceptable given these characters’ larger-than-life bravado.
Even in the months before Osama Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. forces (and the conversations it did—and didn’t—prompt about our national standards and morality), the Coens’ examination of violence and revenge was an oddly perfect commentary on our political moment via a deceptively simple morality tale. Mattie’s headstrongness outweighs all else, and it’s all too easy to question the ultimate worth of her sacrifices. Surely, we’d all like less Chaneys (and Cheneys) in the world, but to satiate the thirst for bloodshed, however righteous the motivation, remains as much of a passing—and potentially worthless—pleasure in 2011 as it was in 1903. Any political commentary herein is likely incidental and perhaps even unintended by the filmmakers; rather, True Grit offers the kind of timeless truths host to the empathy and common sense bereft in so much of today’s public discourse.
Courtesy of regular Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins, True Grit is never less than visually scintillating, but it’s in the frequently held dialectic sparring matches that the film most strongly exhibits its subversive American soul. After a shootout gone wrong and a subsequent discussion on Latin terms between the equally verbose LaBoeuf and Mattie, Rooster notes that “LaBoeuf has been shot, trampled, and nearly bitten his tongue off, and yet not only does he continue to talk but he spills the banks of English.” Surely, no exchange is more hilarious than the one between Mattie and a squabbling Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), whose eyes light up in mortal terror at Mattie’s machine gun-like tongue and bartering prowess: “I do not entertain hypotheticals, the world as it is is vexing enough.” The Coens’ script frequently takes dialogue verbatim from the page, and the rhythms of such dictate the flow and pacing of most of the scenes; the cast engages with Portis’s prose on an organic level, making it natural and musical all at once. In all ways, it’s a stellar ensemble, comfortable enough in their historic context to make us forget that what we’re watching is culling from times past; rather, the proceedings feel like they exist in a living, breathing present. Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation has some good performances going for it, particularly the too old but utterly endearing Kim Darby, but it’s pedestrian filmmaking at best. This True Grit is timeless.
The 1080p transfer is as flawless as the film, as is the exquisitely composed 5.1 audio track. Detail is astonishing, skin tones are impeccable, and you may well get lost in the inky depths of the brooding nighttime scenery. Dialogue is crystal clear, as is Carter Burwell's romantic score; even the silent stretches exude a fullness as haunting as the bursts of bloodshed.
Disappointing, particularly the absence of a commentary track. Most substantial of the available extras is "Charles Portis – The Greatest Writer You've Never Heard Of…," which runs about half an hour and features a handful of experts and artists commenting on the author of the original novel. The rest—featurettes concerning the cast, cinematography, art direction, costume design, and weapons used in the film—totals about 40 more minutes and suggests the kind of tacky fodder one might see in the pre-show "entertainment" at a multiplex, though a five-minute interview with Hailee Steinfeld is cute and suggests what we might've seen had Oscar awarded the most deserving of last year's "supporting" actresses. Rounding out the small lot is the film's theatrical trailer. Sadly, the breathtaking teaser I fell in love with and watched about 80 times last September is nowhere to be found, but the DVD and digital copy of the film are certainly appreciated.
So-so features can't dampen an otherwise prodigious presentation of the Coens' latest masterwork. Fill you hand, you son-of-a-bitch!