*True Grit (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
Here's why I'm prepared to call the Coen brothers the greatest living American filmmakers: After 25 years, they keep finding new ways to surprise me.
For a while, it seemed like Joel and Ethan were merely brilliant craftsmen, cranking out instantly memorable dialogue and clockwork set pieces in their various goofs on/homages to established genres. Though entertaining, their films didn't seem interested in profound feeling or naturalistic characters. But the brothers have proven to be sneaky in that respect; films like Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There had plenty to say about human nature.
In taking on the second adaptation of Charles Portis' novel True Grit — following the iconic, Oscar-winning 1969 John Wayne version — it may seem as though the Coens just want to add "vintage Western" to the list of genre roads they've traveled. Instead, they've subtly crafted what may be their most deeply felt movie yet.
As in so many vintage Westerns, a quest for vengeance is at its core. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the 14-year-old daughter of an Arkansas farmer killed by hired hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), has set her considerable will to the idea that she will have the fugitive brought to justice. To that end, she hires an infamous U.S. marshal by the name of Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whose sheer tenacity she believes makes up for his one missing eye and fondness for whiskey. She joins him on a quest into the untamed Indian territory to find Chaney, occasionally assisted by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).
The film's dialogue has the typically arch quality we've come to expect, but many of the dry punch lines come straight from Portis' book, in spirit if not in verbatim phrasing; there's more to laugh at here than in most conventional comedies. The compositions shimmer in Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography, and Carter Burwell provides a lovely minimalist score based on the 19th-century hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." And while the supporting cast is uniformly great, Damon's puffed-up lawman marks one of his nimblest performances ever.
The soul of the story, however, is the relationship between Rooster and Hattie. Bridges does more to change his take on The Duke's Rooster than switch his patch to the other eye; he's a mean drunk, not far removed from his own career as an outlaw, who holds few people as worthy of anything but his disdain. And relative newcomer Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie, holding her own with the Coens' rat-a-tat language.
There's a scene in which Mattie and her horse ford a river alone, Rooster watching from the far shore inscrutably; in the moment of her safe emergence, all he can think to do is compliment the horse. What develops between them is pure respect for someone with a toughness they each had thought only existed in themselves — and the framing narrative that shows Mattie as an adult makes it clear that no one else could ever quite appreciate her in the same way.
Mattie may be the perfect heroine for the Coens, with a controlled exterior that makes it seem as though there's nothing more emotional going on beneath the surface. Her final act in the film shows that perception to be a miscalculation — and maybe folks have been making the same miscalculation about the Coens' prowess all these years.