Apparently, for Jeff Bridges, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2009 was just a warm-up exercise for what he was going to get himself up to in 2010. This month he played a good-versus-evil dual role in TRON: Legacy, hosted an irresistible Saturday Night Live episode (where he sang a song with Cookie Monster!), and after all that, he brought True Grit home.
In True Grit, Bridges plays Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a grouchy slob of a drunk with an eyepatch over one eye and a burning enthusiasm for frontier justice in the other. True Grit was originally a novel by Charles Portis, and then it was a movie in 1969 in the cool-down phase of John Wayne’s long career. I regret to admit that I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but I have seen the Coen Brothers’ rendition starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, and I can tell you that it’s instantly my favorite movie of the year – if that means anything, of course.
True Grit is the closest we’ve come so far to a mainstream, crowd-pleasing Coen Brothers movie. It has all the virtues and eccentricities and technical brilliance that the Coens have taught us to expect from them, but it also is just a bit more conventional than usual. The heroes are actually heroic, for one thing. There’s the aforementioned Jeff Bridges, as charismatic and ingratiating as ever, even when he’s playing a character that often looks as lousy as he often acts. There’s Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (“La Beef”), the uptight lawman who ends up as a reluctant teammate. Matt Damon is hilarious in this movie, toning down his impeccable way of making an audience believe he can do anything until he appears to be a total dunce, only to end up surprising you all over again.
But before these two guys enter into the story, and after they leave it too, there’s Mattie Ross, played by the young Hailee Steinfeld. Mattie’s father was killed by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and she wants him brought to justice. She hires Marshall Cogburn, because she’s heard he has “true grit,” and insists that she get to accompany him in the pursuit. (She’s ridiculously, brilliantly persuasive.) LaBoeuf, already in pursuit of Chaney across state lines, joins them. Nobody gets along.
The confrontational banter between the three main characters is some of the most pure joy that movies can provide. Obviously the Coens provide some of the most distinct and musical dialogue of any writers around, but it should be said that a lot of the dialogue reportedly comes from Portis’ novel (which I now want to read even more.) The Coens, as one of the most unique filmmaking forces to emerge from America in the past thirty years, aren’t exactly known for their skillful facility with adaptations, but it is a part of their resume. Their planned adaptations of James Dickey’s To The White Sea and Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre have yet to be realized, but of course they reached new heights with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. They also know their detective fiction, as their debut, Blood Simple, referenced the work of Dashiell Hammett, and their most popular movie, The Big Lebowski, is essentially a take-off of The Big Sleep, originally a Raymond Chandler novel. The Coens know how to enliven the work and the influence of others while bringing their own individualistic stamp to it. They know their pulp literature and they know their film history, and they bring all of it to bear in True Grit.
Did someone say “bear”?
Yeah, there’s a lot of humor in True Grit, both ridiculous and profound. The trailers and promotional materials have emphasized the pure badass-ness of the movie – and that’s there, no mistake – but it’s a wonderful surprise to discover how hysterical it is. It’s funny even in its most tragic moments, just like real life. There’s a black humor and a sharp tang to the unsentimental nature of the movie, and it’s totally refreshing to experience, particularly at a time of year that can either go too sweet or too sour. The tone of True Grit isn’t too treacly and it isn’t too harsh. It’s just right. (There goes that bear reference again…)
True Grit is really kind of perfect, from the imagery captured by the legendary Roger Deakins, to the wonderful score by underrated Coen regular Carter Burwell, to the two memorably uglied-up and weirdly compelling villains of the piece, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned. It should get repetitive to note how dependably watchable that Matt Damon and the Coens are, but it really doesn’t. They’re that good. Everyone involved is working at the peak of their respective craft. But in the end, if there’s a defining feature of this movie, it will be that unusual, indelible relationship between the two riding companions, Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, and there are no two more ideal actors on the planet (or in the throughways of time and space) to play them than Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. There’s something both truly real-world relatable and movie-perfect that happens in the alchemy of casting and characters here. The magic that occurs between the two of them make True Grit something truly special, even by the absurdly high standards that the Coen Brothers have set for themselves and for the rest of us. This wasn’t just my favorite movie of 2010. This might end up becoming one of my favorite movies, period.