As part of our Ultimate Playbill project, each week a faculty member will take the time to extol the virtues of one of the beloved films on this list. After a week off in observance of Labor Day, I return to shoot for holybeeofephesus’ 1st pick, True Grit.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s revisionist Western masterpiece was released only 6 years ago. It seems hard to imagine the 21st Century trend of Western revivals would have been able to continue if not for this film, a remake of the John Wayne starring vehicle of the same name released in 1969. The idea of the Coen Brothers remaking a film widely considered a classic was worrisome for many fans. The last film the brothers had attempted to remake resulted in their weakest film, the Tom Hanks starring dark comedy The Ladykillers, released in 2004. Fortunately for everyone True Grit far exceeds their prior effort in re-imaginings, even exceeding the original film upon which it is based. At the 83rd Academy Awards, True Grit was nominated for ten Oscars, taking home none by the end of the night, a somehow appropriate way for the story of this excellent film to end.
Several factors cooperate to make a film that could have been unnecessary into an essential one that acts as a reminder as to why the Western genre is still important to the American film landscape. The first of these is the acting, led by Hailee Steinfeld in an stellar big-screen debut, and anchored by the ever-entertaining Jeff Bridges, who continues to play a similar version of this same character in at least one film a year since. Matt Damon and Josh Brolin round out the main cast, with a striking supporting performance from Barry Pepper as the coincidentally named bandit Ned Pepper.
Ms. Steinfeld portrays Mattie Ross as a no-nonsense negotiator with a sense of determination often reserved for action heroes and super-spies. Few child actors are capable of rising beyond precociousness to tap into the raw human characteristics suited for a gritty Western such as this. To be able to act alongside such masters of the craft as Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin takes serious acting prowess, as Hailee Steinfeld shares individual character scenes with each of these legends and somehow manages to come out on top.
While Jeff Bridges turn as Rooster Cogburn is similarly excellent, the showiness of a drunken U.S. Marshall is far less rare a feat than that of a determined young woman in a hostile land. Even so, Jeff Bridges acts as the cornerstone of the film, being both the emotional core, and the source of much of True Grit’s humor.
Moving on from the acting, the second factor that contributes to the overall quality of the film is the vibrant costumes, designed by Mary Zophres, who has designed costumes on nearly every Coen Brothers film since Fargo. From the Texan frills of Ranger LaBoeuf to the rags of Rooster Cogburn that look downright smelly, the work of Mrs. Zophres adds believably that is far too often lacking in other Westerns.
The music of Carter Burwell is another element of True Grit that far exceeds the usual fare for modern Westerns. Burwell uses a hymnal from 1888 called “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as the theme for the character of Mattie Ross. Several other hymns make appearances in the film, accompanied by original music that settles in alongside them without friction. Burwell has composed music for nearly every Coen Brothers film, and his music is as much a part of the Brothers’ style as their writing at this point.
The final major contribution to the quality of True Grit comes from cinematographer and legend of the craft, Roger Deakins, whose perpetual snubbing at the Oscars lends credence to that ceremony’s lack of appropriate recognition. There is an abundance of natural beauty to be found in the film, in addition to intimate horror, which Mr. Deakins lends an equal amount of craft to. Plenty of other artists and craftsmen contributed to this American classic, but only a few can be discussed in such a brief survey of a film.
Of course one can’t discuss the astounding quality of a film without attributing much of it to its writers and directors, who in this case act as both. Joel and Ethan Coen appear on the Idle Times’ Ultimate Playbill three times, making them the most accounted for directors and writers on the list, their immense talent as filmmakers has already been dissected thoroughly by the other writers on this site.
True Grit is an incredible picture, easily deserving of recognition on our playbill. It is both one of the most original films, and the only remake on the list.