Movie Review: True Grit

The Coen's love letter to a recently unloved genre

Excluding 2005’s Serenity – and given that film contains a spaceship, purists most likely will exclude it – there hasn’t been a single Western I’ve really enjoyed at any point in the last twenty years. In fact, I can’t think of more than a slightly mutated handful that have even been made, which is strange given the stock Hollywood invested in the genre for the fifty or sixty years prior.

Perhaps the changing face of America is responsible for so few such stories being told – after all, why explore America’s rugged past when the country has enough darkness to plough through in the modern age. Or maybe it’s that cowboy stories almost assume relic status when offered CGI 3D surround-sound mega monsters from outer space. Either way, the Coen brothers’ True Grit isn’t a new Western per se, instead taking John Wayne’s 1969 film of the same name and restoring some of the sacrificed grime present in Charles Portis’ original novel. You might view the brothers’ 2007 outback opus No Country For Old Men as a halfway house on the way to the duo’s attempted restoration of the genre – yet their new work is a film that’s both more action indebted and classically otherworldly in tone.

Because while True Grit marks the brothers’ first collaboration with Jeff Bridges (who is excellent as one eyed U.S. marshal for hire Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn) since 1998’s still unique comedy The Big Lebowski, as far as Coen brothers movies go, this is a film that takes few risks. Like so much of their filmography it still contains set pieces so filled with intrigue they feature more narrative than many films do in their entire running time (there’s a great scene midway through the film involving a corpse and a stranger on a horse that’s as brilliantly odd as The Man Who Wasn’t There’s Billy Bob Thornton and the flying saucer). Yet True Grit is more of a measured, stylistically flawless love letter to the genre than any attempt to evolve it. Be reassured purists, I can confirm there is no spaceship.

Whether you’ll consider True Grit as an early contender for film of the year, as many are already calling it, depends on whether you like the genre (this is a film made by people blatantly head over heals in love with spurs and Stetsons) or if you’re content with being taken on a journey through old America that never really arrives at the brave new world you might expect the Coens to take you to. I would go as far to say as it’s an excellent, albeit very fannish piece of filmmaking and the best western of the last twenty years – but then there’s not that many to choose from.

James McMahon