True Grit, the Oscars, and the New Western

With The Oscars coming up on February 27th, it's time to start to lining up our picks for the best film of the past year. Since last year, the Best Picture category has been extended to ten nominees, allowing for a much wider range of genres to be included in the honor. This year brings us yet another movie by Joel and Ethan Coen: their love story to the American Western, True Grit. Admittedly, I was biased when I sat down to watch the movie as it takes place in my hometown, Fort Smith, Arkansas. I’d been looking forward to the film for quite some time, and my enthusiasm was magnified after the trailer was released last October.  Fort Smith, with its rich and wild history, is the perfect setting for a Western. It’s a unique place that belongs both to the South and the West; it somehow remains not remotely Southwest (just ask a resident what they think about Texas). Called “Hell on the Border,” it was founded as an army fort in 1817 on the edge of the Indian Territory. By the late 19th century, it was notorious for its outlaws who would move back and forth across the border. U.S. Marshalls were hired to go into the territory and bring back the wanted, which is the central idea of the film.

The film itself is adapted from the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, first adapted in 1969 by director John Ford and starring John Wayne. It is an important distinction that the Coen Brothers didn’t remake the film; this is a brand new adaptation. The earlier version was born into a era that celebrated the myth of the American West, exemplified by the grandiose landscape (a.k.a Ridgeway, Colorado) where the movie was made. Although the new film was shot largely in Texas and New Mexico, the scenery is almost identical to the more eastern landscape in which the story is set. The film glorifies gritty realism at its best. It’s bloody and unforgiving, and while the good and the bad are never confused, the directors did an excellent job of blurring the lines.

The plot revolves around a 14 year-old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) who seeks to hire Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), the meanest, toughest US Marshall in town, to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. Along the way, they pick up Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is searching for the same man. The odd ensemble travel into the Indian Nation and their unique personalities add a wonderful freshness to the Western with suberb acting and Coen-esque dialogue. The banter between LeBoeuf and Cogburn provide some of the most memorable parts of the film, as well as an excellent portrayal of the young heroine by the unknown Steinfeld.

As the movie progresses, the characters move deeper and deeper into lawless territory and story becomes wilder at every step of the way. The violence is unforgiving and real -- we never have the feeling who will survive and who won’t. The story successfully keeps us on the edge of our seats while eventually providing a bad guy butt-kicking similar to the climactic scene in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

The Academy awarded the film with 10 nominations this year including Best Picture, Best Actor (Bridges), Best Supporting Actress (Steinfeld), and, to no surprise, Best Director.

The question is: will it win Best Picture? I don’t know. As well done as the movie is, it is a genre film. It may be a great Western, but unlike 2008’s No Country for Old Men, it doesn’t transcend the genre. I’m willing to bet the Coens didn’t want it to; they simply explored and improved the Western as they intended. Bridges may lose Best Actor to Colin Firth’s excellent performance in The King’s Speech as well, possibly only because Bridges beat out Firth for the award last year. One of the best aspects of the film, however, is in it's sprawling landscapes and poignant portraits; the film's images are truly beautiful.  It won’t surprise me if the Brothers’ longtime collaborator Roger Deakins beats Inception’s Wally Pfister for cinematography. While I doubt True Grit will sweep the Oscars this year with worthy competitors like The King's Speech and The Fighter, you can be sure that the two-headed director’s latest project will receive at least a few nods here during Hollywood’s biggest night.