If I say that ‘True Grit’ is pretty much a perfect movie, it’s not so much that I’m placing it in some imaginary canon of great films, or saying that it’s impossible to improve upon, merely that it has all the elements you might want in a visit to the cinema, and that all those elements are of an extremely high quality.
The Coen Brothers always make exceptionally well-crafted movies. Whether they’re making a relatively accessible comedy or crime movie, or something as quirky and potentially alienating as my favourite of their films, the ultra-whimsical ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’, these joint writer/director/editor/producers always put out a movie that feels like it’s been carefully assembled, even if you don’t necessarily like what it is.
Even if a performance grates or a tonal shift seems too severe – and the Coens’ black humour lends itself to both of these – these things never seem accidental. If it’s like that, it’s because the brothers want it that way.
‘True Grit’ feels exceptionally well assembled with, as I said at the beginning, pretty much everything you might want from a film. It’s a drama, weighty and serious, very well acted by the cast. It has action, building to a couple of truly exciting set-piece moments of tension towards the end. And, finally, it’s also incredibly funny, with some really witty dialogue.
Drama, violence and humour closely interact in the wild west of ‘True Grit’, where characters and events are often both deadly serious and amusingly absurd at exactly the same time. The central trio of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, predictably excellent but excellent nonetheless), LaBouef (a never-better Matt Damon) and Mattie Ross (an astonishing breakout performance from Haileee Steinfeld, nominated for an Oscar and every other award going for her role), embody this layered approach.
Who could be more serious and dramatic than a cold blooded killer, a lawman seeking justice and a bereaved girl seeking vengeance for her father? What could be more absurd than a one-eyed drunk, a dandy cowboy with shiny spurs and a fourteen year old girl cussing and shooting with the worst the old west can offer?
These contradictions are incredibly rich, but entirely believable in the heightened context of a frontier where lives can be lived and suddenly end in grotesque, arbitrary fashion.
In their search for the pitiable, pitiless killer of Mattie’s father, the three lead characters encounter a varied cast of well-drawn characters and vignettes, in a way that plays to the Coens’ strengths in terms of creating memorable moments and eccentric characters, but also feels more structured than a travelogue. The narrative is pulled through its quiet moments and baroque, slang-coated conversations by the confrontation that the story must, inevitably, end in, a confrontation that we know will end badly for someone. Possibly everyone.
I’m not sure whether ‘True Grit’ is the Coens’ best film, and I’m certainly not in any position to say whether it’s a great movie or not, but it’s a film that it’s hard to imagine anyone beyond the most dedicated western hater or the super-squeamish not being gripped by. It’s compelling and entertaining, beautifully composed and brilliantly acted.