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True Grit: Sentimental Education

True Grit fits well into 2010’s slate of films because it is about a reluctant hero, a guy who is faltering at life, even failing. Right up front you know that the Coens are not going to give you what you expect, which is a starker version of the John Wayne film. This, because there are long pieces of talking scenes in the beginning. The Coens are part director, part editor and very much writers. The writing here is pronounced, as it in The Social Network and Winter’s Bone: it stands out on its own both in terms of its dialogue and the rhythm of the thing. When you watch David Fincher’s The Social Network you can hear a drumbeat behind every sentence. Fincher times his film to Sorkin’s speed, and Eisenberg matches it. In True Grit, the language is equally important; maybe one of the most prominent things about it. Some will find it, as they do with The Social Network, intrusive because it bobs so mightily on the surface. But others will admire their attention to detail. Like The Social Network, True Grit’s actors are up to the task at hand, and they adeptly handle the awkward text as if they were born into it.

True Grit is really a film that lives up to its title; it is about having the grit to do what it takes. It turns out, though, that it doesn’t really mean what it’s supposed to mean. It wouldn’t be one of the 2010’s best films if it were that literal. It is, of course, about that tiny piece of heroism that rises in Rooster Cogburn by the end of the movie. He does what’s necessary. He’s not afraid to follow his own morality. It is his vulnerability that may surprise him after all of his big talk about being so tough. In the end, he must come to terms with his own paternal impulses. It’s a beautiful thing.

True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, a smart-talking, tough-as-nails whippersnapper who simply does not buy into the notion that a girl can be talked out of something. The men in the film try to tell her what she should think, how she should back off – but her force of will is too strong. It’s either that, or she can’t stop. Her own true grit doesn’t let up. She knows what needs to be done and by god, it will be done. For her assassin she chooses the tough but careless Rooster Cogburn, a drunk by all accounts. From other side, there is Marshall La Beouf (the beef), who promises to retrieve Mattie’s father’s murderer, Tom Cheney. Killing him or bringing him to justice, these are the two options. Mattie is determined to tag along with the men, to see it all goes as planned, not realizing that her very presence will become its own biggest liability. But we don’t always know that going in, do we.

The three of them make their way into “injun territory” to ferret Cheney out. Almost everything that could go wrong does go wrong. What seems to matter more, in the end, is keeping the right people alive.

Bridges as Cogburn has so many things going on at once – the actor seems to call upon every character he’s ever played to pull this off.¬† There are echoes of Jeff Lebowski, Bad Blake, The Last Picture Show’s Duane Jackson. Not much is left of him, but a tiny bit of goodness that reveals itself little by little as the film unfolds.

The Coens have, with True Grit, dipped into that mysterious landscape of human emotion. They’ve never really gone there before, except a bit here and there. There is some of it in Raising Arizona. But usually they are one step removed from it, as if there was a thick wall of plexiglass between their characters and their emotional lives. But here, that wall has been mostly stripped away and wouldn’t you know that they wear sentimentality as well as they wear irony. I was genuinely moved by True Grit. Both by Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld’s performances, but also by the way the Coens went there, without fear or hesitation. Of all of the American-born filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen continue to grow as they tell stories – revealing pieces of themselves to their audiences. A Serious Man elbowed the door open slightly; but True Grit seems to have pushed it wide open.

What does this mean, though, for the tried and true Coen traditionalists? They will likely be somewhat disappointed by the overt sentimentality here, the reach into unknown Coen territory. But for a few scenes of violence and some surreal moments, True Grit, for them, is The New.

The real scene-stealer is Matt Damon, who gets to play the type of part he was really born to play: awkward fake/tough guy. He plays this very well in The Departed, and his awkwardness was fully realized in The Talented Mr. Ripley. But here, every line of dialogue that comes out of his mouth, every time Cogburn refers to him, it’s funny. The three characters — Cogburn, Mattie and La Beouf are a motley crew, but an engaging one. The idea that the strongest person in their group is a 14 year-old girl makes it all the more sweet.

The Coens have delivered yet another unique work in their truly astonishing collection. With each film they try something they’ve never done before. It isn’t just gimmickry, and it isn’t just their desire to dip into one genre, it is their refusal to ever play it safe, to ever give the audience just what they’re expecting. The same way Fargo had a pregnant cop as the hero of the film, and The Big Lebowski had a stoner bowler in the middle of an extortion plot, and two gym workers (“Hard Bodies”) trying to sell secrets to the Russians — always, there is futility knocking at the door, but it is never in the way you expect it.

Futility, though, is nothing in the face of paternal or maternal instinct. For the first time since I’ve been watching their films, the Coens as parents reveals itself with True Grit. It exposes this basic tenant of the human experience in a most unexpected way, in a film many will see as a “lighter” Coen effort simply because it does not feature violence in the same way their other films do (“you should see the other guy.”)

But they don’t seem to be making movies to give their audiences what they want or expect. Many of our talented filmmakers this year are doing stuff they’ve never done before. You know when a director has decided that he or she doesn’t want to disappoint their audience because they start believing their own publicity.¬† Artists will never thrive under those conditions. Never. No matter what medium they’re working in. To dare to be different, to take risks — that is how great films are made.