Big Screen Brain: True Grit

True Grit is a movie by the Coen brothers that takes place in a wild west, mid-nineteenth century setting. But somehow, it is not A Period Piece or A Western or even A Coen Brothers Movie. It is one damn fine piece of filmmaking. Of all the movies that fall into the My Purpose As A Film Is To Win Awards category* that I have seen, this is unquestionably my favorite.

The success of True Grit as a film comes from the filmmakers’ ability to avoid overdoing anything. Joel and Ethan Coen have learnt the art of moderation. Comedy, emotion, action, and gore are all present in True Grit, but they are balanced and regulated (without seeming restricted). There is just enough, but no more.

I make that claim by way of comparison between True Grit and the Coens’ other films, recent and less recent. They are some of the best filmmakers working right now, but their style has previously been both consistent and easily recognizeable. Basically, they love to make funny but disgusting movies about really stupid people…but in an oddly smart way. In these films, every one gets their due, generally in a way that involves bloody violent death or obscenity or laugh out loud hilarity or all three. True Grit has those typically Coen elements, but they do not dominate. I can think of only two scenes in the film where it is so clear you are watching one of their movies that you momentarily forget what is actually going on. The courtroom introduction of Jeff Bridges’ character, and The Tongue Thing. therwise, other than the mere presence of Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, and the occasional bit of Really Weird Shit, True Grit is nothing more or less than an incredibly well-made movie.

I think making a film based on a story not of their own imagining provided a great opportunity for the Coen brothers and that the quality of their work is only going to go up from here. The story is, admittedly, one that lends itself well to their particular style. But what makes this stand out from their previous films is the story. It is clear, more or less linear, and simple enough on its own that it can both dictate a path to follow and also leave room for stylization in the telling. End result: the script for True Grit is masterful.

And, luckily, the cast has more than enough talent to bring that script to life. Jeff Bridges is his usual excellent self; the fact that he manages to fully inhabit the role of Rooster Cogburn in this film is no surprise, especially when you remember who the filmmakers are. Josh Brolin is good enough, but I feel like his presence and importance to the film was highly exaggerated by the credits and advertising because, when you get right down to it, he is only on screen for about five minutes (and he is not the one you should be paying attention to). As for Matt Damon, he seems poised to become a new recurring face in movies by the Coen brothers. He is absolutely hilarious and absolutely perfect in a role that is like nothing else he has ever done. Between this film and last year’s The Informant!, he has proved himself to be versatile enough to stretch not only beyond action movies, but beyond drama and all the way into clever comedy. Supporting Actor nominations for him? Yes please.**

The central role, a fourteen-year-old girl, was undoubtedly the greatest casting challenge for this film, and the Coens struck gold with Hailee Steinfeld. That she holds her own among the heavyweight talents who are her costars is an understatement. She is not only credible, but fascinating to watch. The character Mattie is definitely the heart of the movie, and Steinfeld had many more emotional hurdles to cross than the rest of the cast. She did so with grace and without going over the top. There is nothing overwrought or ingenuine in her performance. Imdb isn’t telling me anything about her future plans, but I definitely hope to see her do more.

The final element that knits True Grit together as a film is the sheer aestheticism of it. This is the same sense of aestheticism that has helped all films by the Coen brothers step beyond the sphere of mere oddball black comedy. Location shoots in Texas and New Mexico gave a sweeping sense of environment; the feel of an open and unexplored American West that is a far cry from the barren desert of typical Western fare. And of course all the shots and all the production elements are all fitted perfectly to both the style of the film and the time period in which the film is set, creating a seamless world in which to tell a story that is not quite realistic, but not quite fantastical either.

True Grit is definitely a My Purpose As A Film Is To Win Awards kind of a film. But it also definitely deserves recognition. It is beautifully made and there are no elements lacking. In a year studded with mediocre moviemaking, the excellence of True Grit is a relief as much as it is a revelation.

See. This. Movie. Now.

(Closing thought: Snakes. Why do there always have to be snakes.)

* I am not counting Inception in this category on grounds that, despite its excellence and the admitted likelihood it will win some awards, I believe its proper category is the My Purpose As A Film Is To Be Awesome one.

** Fun fact about the cast of this film: JK Simmons is the voice of Mattie’s lawyer. And yes, I did figure that out ALL ON MY OWN.

Other fun fact: In the credits, Ethan Coen’s son is credited as “Matt Damon’s Abs Double.” I also noticed that ALL ON MY OWN. And it was funny. (And then I found five dollars…)

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