Review: True Grit

Written by Jordan Petersen on . Posted in Film

The Coens are at the point now in their careers where they get to make a new movie almost every year. I think we should all take a moment to contemplate how fortunate we all are.

I’m not going to say that Joel and Ethan Coen are incapable of making a bad film. I’ve heard that Burn After Reading was terrible from every single person who’s seen it. We’re all human here on this little planet, and I’d almost be disappointed if they don’t squeeze out another stinker sometime or another. But True Grit isn’t that film. Nope, it’s just another jewel in their crown of daunting cinematic achievement.

If the Coens have a signature style that permeates their work, it’s gotta be the dialog. They’ve labored within a wide range of genres, but the one constant is that the dialog is always fresh, sharp, poetic… perfect. And very often exactingly funny. Not once in any of their films does a single line of dialog come across as on-the-nose, cheap, trite or out-of-place. It’s a style of writing that lends itself quite well to the Western genre, actually, with all its stoicism and gruff subtextuality.

From the trailer for the film, you might have assumed True Grit would be a bit dark. Gritty. The preview is a taut and effective piece of cinema in itself, and certainly communicates that tone. The surprise is that this is one of the funnier films by these brothers. A comedy? No. But sincerely, constantly funny. These are expert storytellers, and they have a way of teasing out the humor of real life, real situations, real people. Not REAL (as in documentary, or reality TV), but real, the way a well-told story worth its telling becomes real.

A great illustration of this is when Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) sends Mattie Ross up a tree to cut down a lynched corpse because Rooster is “too old and too fat,” but he needs to see if he knows the man. She cuts the rope, the body lands on the ground with a cringe inducing thud, and Rooster steps over to examine the desiccated, eyeless face. “I do not know this man,” he frankly states. And the audience laughs, because it’s impossible not to. And this happens over and over. We go from gripping the armrests in suspense to feeling nauseous to laughing out loud — and then back again. And then every once in a while, you get some tears, because it’s a beautiful story (which I will characteristically refuse to summarize for you.)

None of what I’ve described so far surprised me — it’s a Coen brothers movie, after all — but what did surprise me were some of the classic western tropes they chose to employ, such as the traditional, almost melodramatic score, and the slow dissolves and sweeping transitions between scenes and sequences. It’s almost like I was watching some impossible hybrid between a slick modern take on a classic genre and a movie straight out of the Fifties that barely anyone in the world remembers anymore. Like maybe something with, uh, John Wayne. Or something. (*cough*)

So I’ve spent some time talking about this film, but really, all I need to do is tell you that this was made by the same guys who gave us Raising ArizonaO Brother Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, to name a small but significant handful. And it’s at least as good. And now, hearing that, you should be convinced to go see it. So instead of going back and reading all of my other articles again and again and again, you should go see this movie. Because if you miss it, well, it would be the “biggest mistake you ever made.” So don’t.

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