Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
The writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen, whose new movie is the remake of the 1969 John Wayne western True Grit, may be the most controlled and controlling moviemakers in America. So in command of their craft are they, and so literate and knowing about their intentions, that one can generally presume what we experience when we watch a Coen movie is pretty much what they want us to experience.
For whatever reason, the Coens have spent much of their careers actively working to frustrate their audience and its expectations. In their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, for example, they have us follow the meticulous efforts of a clever fellow to get away with a briefcase full of cash for more than an hour only to have him killed offscreen. In their lighter films, such as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, they often intentionally overdo and repeat certain comic/slapstick tropes as if what they actually want to do is annoy us—the way a precocious child will do something funny, and then do it again and again until it becomes the opposite of funny.
The Coens do not like the false sentimentality or easy satisfaction of conventional moviemaking tropes, and their work constitutes a nearly ideological statement against them. The problem is that those tropes developed over the course of a century for a reason. When they are violated, even in an effort to get to a deeper truth, their violation generates an unsettling anxiety, as though we’re following a roadmap that is actually causing us to get lost.
The anxiety provoked by True Grit, however, is unique in the annals of the 15 Coen films. For once, these extraordinarily controlled filmmakers lost control over an important part of their movie, and for an entirely unlikely reason. It’s not their desire to create narrative frustrations. Nor is it the source material or the story: Mattie (the remarkable Hailee Steinfeld), a whip-smart 14-year-old in 1870s Arkansas, engages a drunk and violent federal marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her find her father’s killer. They are joined by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who is also hunting for the bad guy. The three must cross into the lawless Choctaw Nation, where nothing goes as planned.
The glory of True Grit is not in the tale, though it’s a perfectly good one, but in the telling. True Grit is a beautifully written film—in part because much of the dialogue is taken directly from the gloriously singular 1968 novel by Charles Portis. Despite the great care they have taken with the screenplay, they have allowed the movie’s star, Jeff Bridges, to deliver his lines in a growling basso that makes at least half of the words he speaks almost entirely incomprehensible.
Bridges, for whom I have great respect, has never before been guilty of this kind of actorly malfeasance. And the Coens have never before allowed a performer the ruinous latitude they give Bridges here. Consider this key moment, after a failed effort to capture the killer and his gang. Cogburn delivers an enraged speech that, on paper, knocks you out:
We have barked, and the birds have flown! Gone, gone, gone! Lucky Ned and his cohort, gone! Your $50, gone! Gone, the whiskey seized in evidence! The trail is cold, if ever there was one! I am a foolish old man who has been drawn into a wild goose chase by a harpy in trousers, and a nincompoop! Well, Mr. LaBoeuf can wander the Choctaw Nation for as long as he likes; perhaps the local Indians will take him in and honor his gibberings by making him chief! You, sister, may go where you like! I return home! Our engagement is terminated! I bow out!
On screen, it’s gibberish. I made out maybe every third word.
Throughout, Bridges sounds like an old stick shift that is having trouble going from second to third gear. Meanwhile, Matt Damon, the criminally underrated actor who plays LaBoeuf, blows Bridges off the screen; he finds a voice and accent and style for his character that make him all but unrecognizable. That’s what Bridges was trying for—that and seeming different from John Wayne—and it’s amazing how poorly he managed it in comparison to Damon.
True Grit almost fails because of Bridges. But it doesn’t fail. In the end, it’s a knockout because the Coens decided (as they did with Fargo back in 1996 and A Serious Man in 2009) not to subvert the impact of the story they are telling. This is a story about bravery and cruelty and loss, and they do not interfere with that. In embracing convention, the Coens actually get to the emotional truth in True Grit, and for that accomplishment, they are being deservedly embraced by the mass moviegoing audience for the first time.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.