Directed and written for the screen by Joel and Ethan Coen
from a novel by Charles Portis
The first thing to note here is this western isn’t a remake of the John Wayne picture, the one for which the Duke won his Oscar. The Coens have gone back to the novel, which I hear they liked due to its witty wordiness, and they’ve taken chunks of the book’s original dialogue to put into the mouths of their actors.
It’s a great cast. Here Jeff Bridges is Rupert “Rooster” Cogburn, the crotchety, bewhiskered US Marshal who is engaged by the 14-year-old daughter of a murdered man to hunt down the killer. She’s the incredibly self-possessed Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, who does well to deliver the loquaciousness required of her) and she insists on accompanying the alcoholic Cogburn into “Indian country” to track down the villain, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). They’re joined by Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced in what one imagines may be true Texan fashion, “LaBeef”). Chaney has met up with a bad lot led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, sporting some of the worst teeth ever seen in the movies).
And that’s pretty much it. There’s a lot of pretty scenery, snow and mountains, a lot of facial hair and many well-growled lines of dialogue. Bridges especially seems to be enjoying himself, though I’ll be damned if I can understand half of what he says. Damon provides some comic relief, but he’s not the only one. The Coens’ love of wordplay serves them well and brings much of the pleasure of the film. Lines such as “Well, that didn’t pan out” and “You don’t varnish your opinion” roll of the tongues of the performers as though they’d been speaking these words their whole life. The authenticity is charming and keeps things light with the threat of death and sudden violence lurking in each holster and scabbard.
I’ve already read criticism of the film, suggesting it’s another of the Coens’ genre exercises. In that I disagree. On the contrary, this is the most “straight” movie I’ve seen the Coens do since, well, maybe ever. It feels like a genuine western, as much as Tombstone, Unforgiven or even the original True Grit. It’s missing much of the typical Coen Brothers intellectual self-consciousness, something I generally like about their films. But I’m not being critical of this different approach, not when it’s as hugely enjoyable as this is. There are even moments of genuine sentiment, such as when Mattie is begging LaBoeuf to stay on the mission, and the swelling music plays behind, it feels like a real, old-fashioned western scene. If the filmmakers have been accused of lacking heart in their stories in the past, they won’t hear that about this film.
But that’s not to say they’re completely free of cinematic reference or a nudge to the ribs. There’s an odd scene where we meet an odd fellow, a travelling wilderness dentist, who wears a bear pelt. Typical Coen weirdness. And a scene late in the running has a rider on a mission of mercy silhouetted against a night sky while “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” plays. Given their references to Night of the Hunter in Raising Arizona, it’s not a surprise to see them do it again here.
OK. Part of me is a bit concerned. Having witnessed David Gordon Green sacrifice his indie cred for broader comedies such as Pineapple Express and the forthcoming Your Highness, I’d hate to see the Coens leave behind their delicious sense of irony to just make straight ahead pictures, even if they are of this kind of quality. But I doubt I really need to worry… the most interesting American filmmakers working today would probably get bored if they didn’t make something very different, and a lot more quirky, the next time out of the gate.