Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (2010)
Undoubtedly their most mainstream film since The Ladykillers (2004), the Coen Brothers latest takes us into territory that fans had long wished for them to explore - the Western. They'd played with its tropes and themes in 2007's Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men, a stunningly bleak thriller that is called to mind on more than one occasion in the disappointing True Grit. Let me also say, however, that it's far from a bad film - just something of a step down after the mightily strange and funnily profound A Serious Man (2009), one of my favorite films of recent years.
There are plenty of merits to be found, and as usual with the Coens' they lie in the script and performances. Their (excellent) adaptation is full of dark witticisms and biblical dialogue, with all contractions thrown to the wind in favor of bold declarations such as "I do not know this man", in the presence of a hanged soul. It's a smart, sharp script (apart from the awful narration by an older Mattie), and the best scenes come early on - especially in Mattie's quick-talk barter with a slimy horse trader. The highlight though (apart from Roger Deakins' brilliantly cold photography) are the performances - especially the young Steinfeld who deserves every bit of that Oscar nomination. Matt Damon is effective in his brief screen-time but the star of the show is Bridges, who excels at being both a repulsive, trigger-happy veteran and an engaging heroic presence. I didn't warm to him in the way many others have - he's pretty much an ass for the entire running time - but I did enjoy every incomprehensible second of his rambling, one-eyed turn, and was thrilled when his one-on-four battle came around.
The major problem is that for a film whose central theme is that violence which begets violence can never end well, and that the cycle of violence and revenge provides not satisfaction or conclusion, but more bloodshed, is one that the Coens' stark adaptation abandons in the final frames. Cogburn (Bridges) is a lawman who is in himself lawless - an obnoxious drunk, he would rather shoot a man than go through the hassle of arresting him. It's telling that the first time we see him (he is previously heard in considerable discomfort in an outhouse at the back of a saloon) is being challenged in a courtroom. All of his stories are of ex-marriages and murder and his dry wit ("Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer") is darkly world-weary. He's a dirty reprobate who provides a strange moral anchor for the 'hero'. Laboeuf (Damon) is broadly painted as the comic relief - a bit of an arrogant oaf, he's more than a little creepy and seems to be the real innocent who is ultimately drawn into Cogburn's games and suffers for it. Chaney (Josh Brolin) is of course a hunted man - for his crimes of cold-blooded murder he is to be either caught by Laboeuf to be hanged, or killed by the young Mattie (Steinfeld). There's a moment at the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT) where Cogburn is unaccounted for, Chaney is dead, Laboeuf is possibly killed and Mattie is stuck down a hole, injured, being approached by snakes. For a second it's actually feasible that the Coens' are going to complete the cycle, and that their bleakly classical Western is going to end as it began - on a note of fatal violence. Death, after all, has lingered throughout the whole film - from the early hanging to the bear-suited man who trades in bodies and practices dentistry on the dead. Mattie even spends her first night in town among the deceased, sleeping in a funeral parlor. That - along with the epigraph 'The wicked flee where none pursueth' - surely foreshadows her demise? But the Coens' don't end it that way, with a P.O.V. shot of Mattie staring up from her possible grave, alone in the silence and unaware if Cogburn and Laboeuf are dead or alive. I know I'm very alone in feeling this way, as we're meant to be rooting for Mattie - and I like the strong heroine very much - but I think the story would have been stronger and better served by her death. Maybe I'll change my mind upon a re-watch, but my heart was in my mouth at the prospect of the film just... ending, on a mind-blowing sucker-punch.
I'm something of a hypocrite though, because I'm about to praise that exact moment in the film. In fact my favorite scene was Cogburn's desperate dash along the western trail, across the blazing sun and dream-like night, to get Mattie to a doctor. Set to Carter Burwell's lovely score (derived from 'Leaning On The Everlasting Arms'), Sight&Sound's Ben Walters describes it as "a swooning fantasia through which sweep stars and knives and bodies in the dirt." And that's a perfect summation, for the beautifully photographed sequence is incredibly emotional and actually shows a lot of good in the character of Cogburn, who had earlier kicked a child several times just for fun. Am I allowed to both slam the film for its ending, but also celebrate its artistry and depth of feeling? Am I allowed to accuse Cogburn of being a violent drunk and yet be uplifted in the moment where he shows such true colours ("I have grown old") and heart? Probably not, and I accept full criticism of my criticisms, but that is the way it is. Of course, there will also be those who don't even agree on the theme I have allocated the film, and they will find other ideas at work. True Grit may not be as perfect as some claim but the major problems only set in toward the end - plot contrivances can be accepted but the antagonists almost felt tacked on and I'd have really loved to see more of Barry Pepper. He does more in five minutes of screen-time than some actors do with entire films. My advice? Wait until you see Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt) before you start labeling this as the best Western of 2010...