starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld
screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis
directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
by Walter Chaw In exactly the same way they distilled the essence of Cormac McCarthy into an overwhelming, oppressive, animal nihilism in No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen have distilled the folksy Americana of Charles Portis into their adaptation of his True Grit. That gift for translation is what made The Odyssey into their collection of regional songs and stories O Brother, Where Art Thou?, what made their Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink (the two films, along with O Brother, that True Grit most resembles) so sure in their genre approximations. More than mimics, the Coens' genius is as interpreters and scholars, able to understand the thrust of not Preston Sturges, but of a Preston Sturges character--of not one book but, miraculously, a body of work. And though True Grit is as literal and faithful an adaptation of the novel as one could hope for, the brilliance of it is that it's captured the immersive feeling of Portis's prose. More than an adaptation, True Grit is an explanation of Portis's work through the agency of an entirely different medium. It suggests that the Coens are like Tarantino's monologue explaining Superman at the end of Kill Bill, Vol. 2: there is in their Fargos and Raising Arizonas sardonic commentary on genre and spectatorship. The big secret is that they are in their way as detached and alien as cultural critics as Cronenberg is as an anthropologist.