‘Unforgiven (1992)’ was one of those landmark works after which the genre was never the same. In the same way that ‘2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)’ forced all sci-fi films to grow up, and ‘Saving Private Ryan (1998)’ obliged subsequent war movies into the warts-and-all approach we see now, Clint Eastwood’s revisionist masterpiece proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the traditional western. The American frontier became a different place for viewers, less romantic, more brutal and barebones – a dirty, capricious, random place hitherto glazed over with the vaseline of myth. Removing this veneer, ‘Unforgiven’ was the enabler that allowed others to apply postmodern motifs to that most American of genres. So we had ‘Brokeback Mountain (2005)’, TV’s ‘Deadwood (2004)’, and a host of other notable films looking to tell the story of the wild west from a different perspective. And in the process of that, the more old-fashioned western, stories of good and evil, of pluck and courage, grizzled and worn warriors struggling with their demons to do the right thing, became increasingly sidelined.
The Coen Brothers’ own ‘No Country For Old Men (2007)’ was itself a modern western that firmly belonged to the post-Unforgiven category, a slow, contemplative yet relentlessly menacing thriller, much like its now-iconic antagonist, Anton Chigurh, that was almost wholly without sentiment. In its portrayal of an evil so elemental that it could not be purged, ‘No Country’ lent a unique insight into the notion and reality of justice and violence in the American West.
With ‘True Grit’ the Coens have made another western, albeit set in the more familiar 19th century background, but unlike ‘No Country’ it is a warm and conventional throwback to the classic era of ‘Shane (1953)’ and ‘The Searchers (1956)’. Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Portis, and already adapted for screen in 1969 for which the aging John Wayne finally won his Oscar, ‘True Grit’ is a known name and carries a certain expectation, not least of which is the vision of the portly Duke’s dominating portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. The original story, I am told, is more about the character of Mattie Ross, a young girl out to avenge her father’s death at the hands of a lowly thug named Tom Chaney. Cogburn is the town marshall she enlists to help track down the murderer, chosen because he is considered to possess ‘true grit’. Together with a quietly preening Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, on Chaney’s trail for a different murder, the trio set out for dangerous Indian territory in order to deliver justice. In the Coens’ hands, Mattie is the heart and soul of the new ‘True Grit’, helped enormously by a poised and mature performance from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Although she becomes less convincing towards the climax as she is called upon to do more action scenes, Steinfeld is very good in the more sedate settings, and overall it is a confident debut, her believability lending the film an important emotional and moral core. Opinion seems to be divided on the performances of Jeff Bridges, who plays the modern Cogburn, and Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), but I thought the two were excellent, especially Bridges who captured the sometimes contradictory nature of Cogburn – ex-con, soldier, drunkard, lawman, etc – while retaining a sense of integrity and bravery. One slightly odd turn is Josh Brolin’s Chaney: Brolin has blossomed into a considerable acting power, so it’s a little disconcerting to find him playing such a one-note character with very minor screen-time (a favor for ‘No Country’, perhaps).
Shot by Roger Deakins, who, having lensed ‘The Shawshank Redemption (1994)’ as well as many of the Coens’ films including ‘No Country’, will go down as one of the legends of cinematography, ‘True Grit’ looks beautiful: endless plains punctuated by monolithic cliffs, snow seemingly hanging in the air like cherry blossoms in a vacuum, like the best westerns it finds primal grace in the Wild West and canvasses it in both epic and intimate frames. The Coen Brothers meanwhile do not engage in their traditional ambiguity and eccentricities, and deliver a surprisingly warm and funny film. There isn’t really any agenda here, just a straight, undiluted telling of a good western yarn with no frills and consummate skill.
If one were to try to find something here, then it would be that the Coens’ ‘True Grit’ represents a 21st century renewal of the western as a parable for justice. From the opening biblical quote – ‘The wicked flee, when no man pursueth’ from Proverbs – to the resolute moral strength of Mattie Ross, and the cantankerous drunkard marshall who pulls through in the end against the odds, the film reinstates the virtue of doing the right thing under duress in a genre ravaged by post-modernism. The resolve, courage and heroism of Shane, Will Kane and Tom Doniphron are recalled in the Coens’ ‘True Grit’, and are all the more welcome for it. It is also a reminder that the western, if treated right, is the most elegiac and beautiful of films that American cinema can offer.