Best to use the word ‘rave’ sparingly, especially in headlines, but when it’s the right word for the job I’m proud to type it. True Grit emerges now undeniably as an awards force to be reckoned with. Manohla Dargis, The New York Times:
The first ‚ÄúTrue Grit‚Äù opened in New York in early July 1969, a week after ‚ÄúThe Wild Bunch,‚Äù the Sam Peckinpah western that‚Äôs widely seen as a metaphor about interventionist follies like Vietnam and that remains an enduring evisceration of the genre. The Coens, who like to play with genre, often with giggles and winks, haven‚Äôt mounted an assault on the western. But in Mattie they have created a character whose single-minded pursuit of vengeance has unmistakable resonance…
Avenging her father and keeping close track of her family‚Äôs expenses are what preoccupy Mattie, a richly conceived and written eccentric, as memorable on the page as she is now on screen. Softened for the first film, she has been toughed up again by the Coens so that she resembles the seemingly humorless if often unintentionally humorous Scripture-quoting martinet of Mr. Portis‚Äôs imagination. At times she brings to mind D. H. Lawrence‚Äôs famed formulation that ‚Äúthe essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.‚Äù At other times, as when she wears her dead father‚Äôs oversize coat and hat, she looks like a foolish child left to perilous play.
Kenneth Turan, The LA Times, after the cut:
That bleak but completely delightful Portis novel, in which a much older Mattie remembers the frontier West of the 1870s, has been charming and disconcerting people since it was published in 1968. The key reason is the vim and vigor of Mattie’s irrepressible narrative voice, which more than one critic has compared favorably to Huck Finn’s. Yes, it’s that good…
The Coens, not known for softening anything, have restored the original’s bleak, elegiac conclusion and as writer-directors have come up with a version that shares events with the first film but is much closer in tone to the book ‚Äî think of the original crossed with Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” Clearly recognizing a kindred spirit in Portis, sharing his love for eccentric characters and odd language, they worked hard, and successfully, at serving the buoyant novel as well as being true to their own black comic brio…
Production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres have combined to create the sense of the West as a harsh, hardscrabble place, made up of wide open but unwelcoming spaces and towns without pity. If Lucien Ballard, cinematographer on the John Wayne picture, showed us a world that was lush and green, as sharply shot by Coen regular Roger Deakins, this West is visually arid, an unsettling Big Empty where only bitterness and bile thrive…
This setting is matched stride for stride by the cast, with casting director Jo Edna Boldin nailing even the smallest speaking parts. The big names in the cast all do excellent work, but the biggest surprise is all but unknown Steinfeld. Mattie is the film’s essential role, and though Steinfeld is but 14 and without major feature experience (Kim Darby was 21 when she played in the original), she nails it, handling the highly stylized language like she was born speaking it.
Dargis ends her review like this:
In some ways, much like Charles Laughton‚Äôs ‚ÄúNight of the Hunter,‚Äù which the Coens quote both musically and visually, ‚ÄúTrue Grit‚Äù is a parable about good and evil. Only here, the lines between the two are so blurred as to be indistinguishable, making this a true picture of how the West was won, or ‚Äî depending on your view ‚Äî lost.
Turan ends his with this:
It wouldn’t be fair to recount the adventures these three experience except to say they are as thrilling as any reader of the dime novels that likely inspired Portis would expect. Carter Burwell’s music, with its frequent referencing of the vintage hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm,” is a key part of the experience. When Iris DeMent’s impeccable version of the hymn is heard on the soundtrack as the final credits roll, it’s the perfect touch to end a film whose aim is always true.
But I’ll give special mention to Andrew O’Hehir at Salon for these lines about drilling down to find what Joel and Ethan Coen are all about:
For now, I’m going to suggest that “True Grit” is a winning western with just a few dark eddies beneath the surface, one that features a star-making lead performance and some spectacular photography, but falls just short of being great. But I’ve been down this road before with Coen movies, so let me attach an asterisk to that verdict. No one can tell you whether to like or dislike a film, of course, but I think grasping what the Coens are up to, in “True Grit” or anything else they’ve ever made, almost always requires multiple viewings. Form is content and meaning for them, which is why they resist talking about those things in isolation. To suggest that “True Grit” is a commentary about race and the social role of women and the relationship between self-reliance and community in American history is essentially to insult the Coens’ intelligence, and yours. It’s a western movie, which is a shorter way of saying all that stuff.