Magnificent Duo

When we first glimpse the Coen Brothers’ version of Rooster Cogburn, he’s bathed in mote-filtered sunlight, a foul-tempered character from a western book of Judges dispensing the pitiless vengeance of an unforgiving god. In fact, the King James Bible and Shakespeare are ever present throughout the magnificent True Grit, the characters speaking in a tongue so rigorous it does not allow the use of contractions.

Why the Brothers’ latest offering is routinely being ranked below the facebook movie and swan thing in year-end roundups is just another reason such lists are so tedious. The Coens have proven from the outset their understanding of the American West, one every bit as profound as John Ford’s. In Jeff Bridges, they’ve found a John Wayne with equal presence and greater range; his work here is subtly different from his Oscar life time achievement award last year, and it’s miles, if not a light year, from the Dude in Big Lebowski or the jerk in Fisher King, one of his breakouts. Miles are plenty far. You want Bridges to be Bridges, a man who you pray will never take that final step between him and self-awareness. Sure, it will make him a better person, but it will kill the unapologetic rogue factor that makes him so appealing.

Of course, the Coens cast brilliantly most of the time, and have figured out how to spin previously pretty faces like George Clooney and Brad Pitt into comic gold (in O Brother, Where Art Thou and the otherwise ugly Burn After Reading, respectively). So it’s no surprise that the movie’s ensemble is thrilling to watch, as they handle language as carefully crafted as anything Mamet ever wrote, but less self-conscious and more mellifluous. “Braggadoccio,” “harpy,” “recollect”: the syllables are a pleasure to listen to, but only if the actors believe that their characters would naturally talk this way.

The tone for that belief is set by the uncanny Hailie Steinfield as Mattie. Somehow, this extraordinarily self-composed child (13 at the time of filmmaking) manages to give one of the performances of the year, maybe the decade. Onscreen, she conjures up in her first sentence a child raised, Lincoln-like, crouched over the book of Proverbs, the pages grimed by the smoke of a single candle. Her brown, unblinking eyes display an unnerving calm, her spine resolute, infused with self-righteous steel. She immediately signals that this is a story of another place, time, and reality. You desperately hope that she continues to work in movies with scripts this beautifully written.

I fear that the brilliant DP Roger Deakins will lose the cinematography Oscar yet again, likely to Libatique for the bird movie or Harris Savides, whose work on Social Network is undoubtedly innovative and beautiful. Deakins is such a master, so legendary that his body of work should be all the monument needed, but symbols are important, and I would guess that an award for a particular picture means more than one of those catch-all lifetime achievement statues. The guy can shoot basically anything perfectly, but seems to have a particular affinity for desolate landscapes, whether they’re the broad expanses west of the Mississippi, the ravaged alleys of punk-era London (Sid and Nancy), or the devastated domestic environments of A Beautiful Mind or House of Sand and Fog.

But while Deakins has saved a few dull scripts by providing something ravishing to look at when the story’s not making any sense, that’s hardly the case here. The story’s simple, engaging, and told with bone-dry humor. The cast members, including Matt Damon, Barry Pepper, Josh Brolin, and an uncredited John Goodman and Lucas Haas, to name several, are game and elegant in the way only hard men can be. Nearly everyone can ride, Bridges and Steinfield (I’m tellin’ you, this kid is incredible) beautifully so, as important to a Western as, one presumes, the ability to dance should be to a ballet movie.

My one quibble is that the movie is overscored in certain places. In the crisis that precedes the climax, the movie turns melodramatic when the music starts telegraphing. In fact, that crisis scene could potentially derail the whole thing; suddenly, we’re in the middle of a shoot-’em-up of a bunch of characters we really don’t know enough to care about, and the whole thing’s a little swift and easy; it’s forgivable for showing that Mattie’s cold-blooded lust for “justice” has an ugly price, but it would work better and feel less predictable without all those blasted strings. And when Dolly Parton-soundalike Iris DeMent starts warbling “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the spine of Carter Burwell’s score (lovely as long as it’s kept as austere as the photography), it diminishes the poetry of the last shot as Mattie, now all grown up but unbowed not a centimeter, walks purposefully away from five tombstones on an otherwise empty hill. In silence….what an ending.

But movies can never be perfect; like any work of creation, at some point you just have to stop tweaking and get the damn thing out so that people can see them. See True Grit. It’s an elegy to a kind of cinema and storytelling that doesn’t get made much any more. Thank God the Coens are so contrary.

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