True Grit is undoubtedly a very accomplished genre piece, playing all of the Western iconography straight and in the old Hollywood style plus adding to that tradition with a deftness that you naturally expect from film-makers of the calibre of the Joel & Ethan Cohen. But the film appears to owe a lot more to the macho Hollywood westerns whose rugged homosocial milieu always remained unquestioned and uncontextualised against an equally rugged landscape. Compare this to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone whose sweeping camera work and trance like Ennio Morricone scores always left room for questions, humour and beauty amongst the honour and savagery of frontiers men and women. Obviously the Mattie character as excellently played by Hailee Steinfeld is a window onto a new world where headstrong and intelligent women (and younger folk generally) are able to hold their own in an old, white and male dominated world, which is still something our modern societies should be taking on board. However this message is diluted somewhat in the final act where Mattie reverts to helplessness and the film reverts to clichés; for example Mattie only tracks down Bridges' Cogburn a few days after he passes away.
The film is not without it's powerful moments and impressive cinematography but some artless lapses such as the too numerous dissolves indicating travel some of which are poorly composed. The most Cohen-esque moment is the bear medicine-man passing through on horseback as it begins to snow, however this is a bit of a throw-away sequence with little impact on the action or plot. It is as if someone suggested that the film wasn't Coheny enough.
The strongest message of the film is that the bad guys aren't essentially bad, they're stupid and they've fallen through the cracks, which in the West are wide... and full of snakes. One of the men that Mattie witnesses being hanged pleads "Don't let my boy fall in with bad company" which appears to be what has happened with the crew of the outlaw gang led by Lucky Ned Pepper (who is played by his namesake; the ever interesting Barry Pepper). One member of the outlaw gang makes animal noises instead of speaking and then there's the hunted simpleton Tom Chaney, played by the woefully under-used Josh Brolin. These are clearly men to be pitied despite their violent lives which contrasts with the authority figures who live in the town. The trader who tries to bargain down a recently bereaved girl and the gallows man who shoves a bag over the native American's head before he gets a chance to say his final words are designed to be laughed at in passing rather than deeply criticised or understood.
Jeff Bridges turns in a respectable performance and is, as ever, eminently watchable even if much of his dialogue is incomprehensible. You get the impression that a lot of what he's saying is inconsequential as he is a man of actions not words, which adds a nice layer of realism to the portrayal. The scene where Cogburn is running with the Mattie in his arms reminded me of the scene in the Big Lebowski where The Dude, in a halucinagenic state, runs along a Los Angeles freeway from a giant scissor-wielding nihilist.
My main gripe with the film is that despite all these great performances, it actually lacked grit, and the ability to shock. The Cohen's last film, the subtle and challenging A Serious Man, ends with a dark storm arriving. Unfortunately True Grit doesn't pick up where that film left off. It isn't that dark storm and yet it had the potential to be the Cohen's darkest film to date as well as asking some bigger questions of its characters, society and its audience than it does.