True Grit / Joel & Ethan Coen / 2010 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Bridges, Damon; Light tone
Side Effects: Dialogue; Slight story

Tone is always important to a Coen Brothers film. From The Big Lebowski to No Country for Old Men, all their work is precisely poised somewhere along the spectrum between comedy and drama. Some of their films fall more squarely in one camp than the other, but the Coen Brothers always find the right balance for each project. True Grit is no different, though perhaps it’s harder to identify just what pitch they had in mind.

True Grit is a revenge story, it features dirty, grizzled characters and harsh landscapes, and it has outbursts of candid violence; yet despite all this, it’s not the cold, dark Western one might expect. Instead, True Grit radiates an unexpected warmth, finding absurdity, comedy and heart among its snow-covered plains. While it feels a bit more dangerous than the laid-back Rio Bravo, like that film, True Grit loves its characters and prefers spending time with them to resolving it’s rather banal plot. It plays like a dime store adventure tale, but thanks to its characters and the caliber of its creators it’s an engrossing one.

Jeff Bridges turns in another fantastic perform as Rooster Cogburn, an aging, fat and rather amused bounty hunter. It could have been a showy performance (eyepatch, belly, mumbling), but Bridges creates a full character, never succumbing to generalizations. He’s hired by tenacious, whip-smart 14-year-old Mattie Ross to find her father’s killer. Hailee Steinfeld fits the role well, but her precociousness wears a bit. Completing this odd trinity of adventurers is a very entertaining Matt Damon as the pompous Texas Ranger LaBeouf (he pronounces it la-beef). Damon, like the Coens, is having fun, and deftly walks the thin line between believability and cartoonishness.

Coen Brothers films often feature heightened dialogue, but True Grit’s strangely grammatical, measured prose seems unnatural for a Western. Their words feel out of place in the mouths of some characters, such as Josh Brolin’s killer. LaBeouf, on the other hand, has just enough ego and affected swagger to warrant such inflected lines. Yet despite its highly-stylized dialogue and beguiling tone, True Grit just works. It’s funny without pandering, it doesn’t overreach and it’s always entertaining. Some may question the Coen Brothers’ decisions, but, as always, its nearly impossible to find fault in their execution.