Ed Howard: The idea of the modern western as an art of deconstruction has become so engrained in today’s film culture that it’s disconcerting when a new western comes along that doesn’t take a revisionist stance on the once-beloved Hollywood genre. Westerns don’t get made very much these days, but when they are we expect them to be in the lineage of Peckinpah or Leone rather than the old Hollywood craftsmen who made the genre so ubiquitous in the 1940s and ’50s. You see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Although most film fans would expect a Coen brothers western to be a sardonic, revisionist take on the genre, True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s first proper stab at a genre that has often haunted their work in spirit, is a good old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness western in the classical tradition.
This actually shouldn’t be surprising. There are markers of western style in many other Coen films, notably O Brother Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men: the love of landscapes, the gruffly poetic language, the stark morality, even the fascination with hats that runs through Miller’s Crossing, for in what other genre besides the western do hats mean so much? True Grit might be the Coens’ first actual western, but it’s such a natural fit for them because they’ve always kind of seemed like western filmmakers in a deeper sense. This is why the Old West milieu, sparsely populated as it is with oddballs and degenerates and criminals, feels like an extension of the Mexican border towns of No Country for Old Men, or the wasted Northwestern wilds of Fargo, or even the backwards suburban absurdity of Raising Arizona.
True Grit is an adaptation of a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, which was already made into a film in 1969 by director Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne in the role that won him his only Oscar. Though the Coens’ film differs from Hathaway’s in several important ways and numerous smaller ones—apparently because the Coens follow the novel, which I haven’t read, more faithfully than Hathaway did—the two films also share a good amount of common ground. What’s ultimately most striking about the Coens’ film is how traditional it is, how unshowy and subtle. It balances humor and darkness and action, and it does so within a wholly classical context. First and foremost, it’s just a great story and a great western, and its humble artifice is very refreshing.