Here's why I'm prepared to call the Coen brothers the greatest living American filmmakers: After 25 years, they not only continue to make great movies, but they keep finding new ways to surprise me.
For a while there, it seemed like Joel and Ethan were merely brilliant craftsmen, capable of cranking out instantly memorable dialogue and clockwork set pieces in their various goofs on/homages to established genres. As entertaining as their films were, they 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 more to say about human nature than their detractors gave them credit for. In taking on the second adaptation of Charles Portis' novel True Grit—following the iconic, Oscar-winning 1969 John Wayne version—it might have seemed as though the Coens just wanted 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.
Like so many vintage Westerns, this one has a quest for vengeance at its core. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the 14-year-old daughter of an Arkansas farmer shot and killed by hired hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), has set her considerable will to the idea that she will have the fugitive found and 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—and just as regularly complicated—by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).
Even the least loved of the Coens' films have always offered superficial pleasures, and this one has plenty of them. The dialogue has the typical arch quality we expect from the Coens, 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 nearly any conventional comedy. 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 Mattie, and the two lead actors make it a joy to watch. In his first Coens collaboration since The Big Lebowski, 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 and conveying more than mere precocity, particularly in her terrific scenes bartering with an increasingly flustered merchant (Dakin Matthews).
Those characterizations matter not just independently, but jointly, as the Coens opt to stick much closer to their source material than the 1969 version. There's a scene very atypical of the Coens in which we watch 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.
It would be a shame if True Grit became another case of people praising the Coens as technicians, while getting hung up on the stylized nature of their dialogue and their characterizations. 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 all these years.
True Grit continues at the Carmike 10.