As has been particularly well documented, 2010’s True Grit is the second film based on Charles Portis’ novel of the same name to hit the big screen (Rooster Cogburn being a sequel and the 1978 TV movie not appearing on the big screen and a “further adventure”). I will be leaving it to others to debate the merits of each of the two films in relation to each other and the portrayals of Cogburn by Jeff Bridges and John Wayne. Rather, this review will be concerning itself solely with the Coen Brothers’ film, and its own particular merits as opposed to its merits in comparison to the earlier work.
Joel and Ethan Coen, while they don’t always hit the ball out of the park, do imbue a certain style and sensibility to their films, and that is present in True Grit in spades. The film is full of humor, horror, and for lack of a better term, grit. It is a must watch film for any fan of the brothers, the genre, or good movies in general.
As noted, Bridges takes on the role of Rooster Cogburn here, a hard-drinking, hard-fighting US Marshal. Bridges delivers the sort of strong performance we’ve come to expect from him, truly inhabiting the role and doing a good job making everyone forget that anyone else ever pretended to be Cogburn. Some may complain that there is a smattering of scenery chewing going on, but I think that the boisterousness is Cogburn’s character as opposed to Bridges’ acting.
The real star of the film for my money though is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. Steinfeld, despite her young age, plays Mattie with a sort of brilliant self-confidence that belies both Mattie’s age as well as Steinfeld’s. However submissions may have been made for awards, make no mistake, Steinfeld is the lead actress in the film and a large reason of why the movie succeeds so well. When she needs to be she is funny, when she needs to be she is scared, and when she needs to be she is tough. Mattie Ross undergoes an incredible amount over the course of the film, but no matter what is happening to her, Steinfeld portrayals it all perfectly.
The tale told in True Grit, with screenplay by Coen Brothers, is a relatively simple one, but it is still carried off well. Fourteen-year-old Mattie is on a trip to pick up her father’s body, and upon learning that the law in town has no intention of pursuing his killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), she hires Marshall Cogburn to do the job. They are joined on their journey by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who doesn’t see eye to eye with either Cogburn or Mattie. The trio, separately and together, doggedly pursue their prey and the outlaws, led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), with whom Chaney is riding.
It is an out-and-out tale of revenge. Mattie wants justice for the murder of her father and hires Cogburn not because he’s fair, but because he’s tough and is sure to not let Chaney off lightly. Although the way Mattie opts to pursue justice could make her seem a less than likable individual, her matter of fact manner and clear sense of right and wrong only enhance her appeal to the audience. The issue of how she wants justice carried out does come up on more than one occasion, but her responses never make her appear cold or heartless, just self-confident and with a wisdom beyond her years.
The stark scenery, washed out colors, and gorgeous cinematography appear spectacularly on this new Blu-ray release. The black levels are superb and while there are a number of dark scenes in the film, everything within them is visible. The costume designs feature a lot of textures and stripes, and all of those details are evident in fine fashion in this transfer. There are no rich colors in the film too fill your screen, but the Blu-ray offers a beautiful array of browns, grays, greens, and blacks. The 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio track delivers just as well as any other aspect of the film. The sound design places you squarely into town or the middle of the wilderness, and when bullets fly the whiz right past you. The music is beautiful, clear and haunting and the dialogue is perfectly balanced with the music and effects. Both the visual and audio aspects of the release are, like the film itself, truly top notch.
The Blu-ray release is a two disc set, with the second disc containing a DVD and digital copy of the film. The first disc contains several pieces on the aspects of recreating the Old West. One focuses on the clothing; another on the guns; and another on Fort Smith, the town in the film. There is a brief look at the cast as a whole, and another which focuses solely on Mattie Ross and Hailee Steinfeld, while the last featurette is a longer one on Portis. All of the looks at the production are truly fascinating, but none really ever gets into as much depth as you will want. An incredible amount of effort went into creating an authentic portrayal of this post-Civil War period, and the featurettes only provide the smallest taste of the work. They give a sense of what had to take place but never go far enough in showing what did take place.
One day, when they’re finished making films, someone will be given the task of sitting down and examining the Coen Brothers body of work. As a part of such an effort they will be asked what the brothers’ “best” film is. At this moment that seems like an impossible question to answer. Ethan and Joel Coen have made several utterly wonderful movies, giving us incredible looks at several completely different worlds. True Grit isn’t simply a masterwork by two great filmmakers, it is yet another masterwork by them and is not to be missed.