I don’t have a lot to say about True Grit other than that it’s more evidence that Joel and Ethan Coen are the greatest living filmmakers.
I don’t like it quite as much as Miller’s Crossing — I doubt that’d even be possible, since Miller’s Crossing was as close to a transformative experience I’ve ever had watching a movie — but the two films have a good bit in common.
They’re both filled with a love of dialogue: not just language, and not even the interplay of two interesting characters, but the energy that the heightened unreality of film dialogue makes as the words bounce around a scene. They both have moments of inexplicable eccentricity that spin the story out of complacent realism and back into fantasy.
They both have scenes that seem like the Coens are just showing off with their ability to handle drastic changes in tone — a straightforward bit of plot development, or even comedy, that quickly becomes absolutely horrific. And they both have images so striking it’s as if they’ve been seared into your mind, like an implanted memory — the most notable for me in True Grit was a patch of trees arched like the crumbling walls of a cathedral, with a dead body hanging from the highest branch.
The performances are all excellent to outstanding, even for the Coen Brothers, who routinely have everyone giving the best performances of their careers. The standout is Hailee Steinfeld who’s the real co-star of the film along with Jeff Bridges. She repeatedly tells characters that she’s fourteen years old, and I would’ve naturally assumed she was an actress in her mid-20s playing younger until I got back to IMDB and learned that she was thirteen when the movie was filmed.
I’ve got to confess that, much like my reaction to Miller’s Crossing, I’m not sure that I entirely get True Grit, assuming that there’s something to get in the first place. I’d seen a small bit of discussion about the epilogue online — some people complaining that it served no purpose, other people saying that it made the whole film. I can’t say I agree with either. Unless I’m missing some deeper meaning, the epilogue doesn’t really establish anything that isn’t already adequately said by the rest of the film. Of course I’m glad that no one says anything like, “It’s been you all along, Mattie Ross, who has True Grit,” but I still kind of wish I’d been able to reach some kind of epiphany that tied it all together.
I like Andrew O’Hehir’s review on Salon.com, even though I don’t entirely agree with it. He says that the Coens are formalists above all else, essentially that the Coens aren’t “saying” anything with True Grit other than “We’ve made a Western.” All the meaning is encapsulated by the genre itself.
That ignores the consistency and uniqueness of their body of work, not quite reducing them to parodists but implying that there’s nothing inherent to their films other than their references to other films. But apart from The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and parts of O Brother Where Art Thou?, their movies aren’t just homages or even interpretations. True Grit is a western only so much as Miller’s Crossing is a gangster movie: they’re primarily Coen Brothers movies, and they have more to say about the characters and the Coens’ individual outlook than they do about a genre or some self-reflexive ode to cinema. Even towards the end of the Western’s popularity, when all the films got more navel-gazing, it was rare to see one in which the most exciting moments weren’t shoot-outs or scenes on horseback, but two characters arguing with each other in a bedroom.
I have yet to read the original novel, so I can’t tell exactly how much of the dialogue and how many of the situations were invented in the Coens’ adaptation and how much were part of the original. If the new film is as faithful as the reports I’ve read make it sound, then I’m amazed that it’s taken the Coens this long to make an adaptation. Because it never feels like an adaptation, but a story written specifically for them to interpret. Seeing “an old one-eyed fat man” and a young girl confronted in the snow by a man in a bear suit offering to trade them a dead body from which he’d already removed the teeth — that seems perfectly “Coenesque.”