Despite being brutally violent and populated mostly with racists, misogynists and thieves, the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit,” starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, is one of the funniest films of the year.
“True Grit” couldn’t be a much more simple story: a 14-year-old girl hires the meanest marshal available, Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), to help her hunt down Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. Along the way they begrudgingly team up with a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Damon) who's hunting the same man.
Hailee Steinfeld is a revelation in her first feature film, taking the lead role of Mattie Ross. Surrounded by actors as old and talented as Bridges, Damon and Brolin, it would be easy enough to duck and cover, but Steinfeld’s Mattie is savvy, tough and bold. During one negotiation, she bullies a merchant so mercilessly that he agrees to her terms and forbids his employees to ever speak her name. Don’t be fooled by the Best Supporting Actress nomination she got from the Screen Actors Guild—this is her story and she carries unflinchingly.
It’s a credit to Bridges’ talent that for the second year in a row he plays a besotted lout slumped under a cowboy hat, who very nearly loses a child he has no business caring for, without ever making you think about "Crazy Heart." His Rooster Cogburn is a lawman with an itchy trigger-finger, who “don’t take too many prisoners," a fresh creation from a man enjoying an impressive late-career resurgence.
Damon, no doubt still peeved that his work in “The Informant!” was overlooked, brings a similar brand of pride, preening and dopey charm to La Bouef, who’s been fruitlessly tracking Chaney for months, but remains nonetheless convinced of his own greatness. When you first see him with that asinine handlebar mustache, you think he’s a boob. When you realize he fancies himself something special, you know he’s a boob.
Roger Deakins, who has been the cinematographer for all but one of the Coens’ films dating back to “Fargo” (1996), serves up yet another beautifully shot film—it’s the Old West, after all, if it doesn’t look good, you’re probably not trying too hard. Curiously, it’s during the adventure’s final moments that the look of the film goes awry; maybe they were going for a dreamy, narcotic atmosphere, but it looks instead like cheap greenscreen.
Much of the film’s humor comes from the oddly formal, almost courtly language in which everyone, even the thugs, speaks. After La Bouef bites off half his tongue, Bridges growls that not even this injury can stop him from “lapping the banks of the English language.” All the characters, even the half-wit Chaney, talk in the most flowery manner. It’s hilarious.
The Coens have made a career of bending genre films into high art. They play “True Grit” straighter than any of their previous movies, but it still has the imprint of their special flavor of dark, foreboding humor.