Having neither seen the first adaptation of the book “True Grit”, nor read the book, I can review the film on its merits alone. Reading a bit into the back story surrounding both, though, I have discovered that this film is not so much a remake of an older film, but a new adaptation of a book which has already been adapted into film. And it contains so many aspects of the Coen Brothers’ work which make them among the elite filmmakers today. It has all of their complete, dedicated attention to set detail: marking, for instance, the use of tracks to mark the end of a newly set railroad tracks on an unfinished course; to every little bottle in a department store; to the archaic pronunciation of words and the usage of dated vocabulary. The Old Western setting is finely crafted to be believable, the characters are fully developed, and the plot feels natural (except for a few points which I’ll mention later). In other words, the Coen Brothers once again display their mastery of film form.
The film centers around the story of a highly intelligent, strong-willed girl whose father was murdered by a bandit in cold blood, as she seeks to revenge his untimely death. The plot is carried well through the characters – Jeff Bridges, as the aged, drunken marshall, Hailee Steinfeld, as the main character avenging her father, and Matt Damon, as the well-meaning Texas Ranger. They are brought to life through their numerous intricacies, manners of speech, and their apparent priorities and moral struggles; the film is very well acted. The characters of the bandits seen later are also very vivid and no one seems truly “good” or “bad”; the marshall is just as willing to kick a Native American child as the bandit leader is to spare the young girl’s life – this moral ambiguity was one of the finer aspects of the film. Each seems alive, unique, and believable, without needing a back story explained. And so is displayed another expertise of the Coen Brothers seen in almost all of their movies – the ability to create characters that resemble the bizarre individuality of real people with seemingly no effort.
As I watched the film, however, I noticed that it is much more classically constructed than anything else the Coen Brothers have done. Orchestrated music is used to punctuate strong emotions within the scenes, especially during montages. Later in the film, there are at least three instances within close proximity to each other where we see a main character in a moment of extreme danger, only to be saved at the last minute by another character’s unexpected arrival, heralded by the strong sound of music. This is an approach entirely different to their other films, which generally attempt to create a feeling of realism through the use of carefully constructed sounds and music coming from within the film’s world – most notably in “No Country For Old Men”, which had no music whatsoever except for one instance of a mariachi band playing within the film. It is also, in general, quite linear. This gave the film a feeling of being a Coen Brothers work within a Hollywood construct; the fact that this is (as far as is to the knowledge of this humble reviewer) the first film they did for Paramount Films instead of Focus Features seems to legitimize this thought.
At first this dismayed me, and I began to wonder what the reason was for such an absolute shift from a film so diametrically opposed to Hollywood as was “A Serious Man”, to one that feels classically Hollywood. Then I began to wonder – perhaps they were trying to make a film that feels like Old Westerns more than to recreate the Old West? If so, they certainly succeeded. Overall, the film is a good Western with all the qualitative aspects of which the Coen Brothers are masters. It is not their masterpiece, but it is a worthwhile addition to their pantheon and a fine film and Western in and of itself.