The Coen brothers make movie making look so effortless.
Their last films, No Country, A Serious Man and now True Grit are so strong that one wonders what other American classics might come out of their creative powers.

The film works because of its strong characters. Everyone has been directed in a way to create full, dynamic, and conflicted characters. In a year of some fine acting from young actresses (Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Carey Mulligan in An Education) I believe that Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross will likely garner an Oscar nom and could take it home. But everyone in this film is well cast and work so well in an ensemble. Jeff Daniels creates another amazingly memorable character yet again. There are few people who could create such a morally ambiguous character that is lovable, comedic, deadly, sinister, and damnable.

The film works because the story feels organic. The twists and turns feel natural and emanate from the characters and not tacked on to serve as plot devices. The little vignettes in the beginning of Mattie horse-trading and sleeping in an undertaker’s as well as the trial where we first meet Rooster all are lovely character building scenes that don’t feel like we are just ‘wasting time’ before the ‘real adventure’ starts. This is a key element of movie making: that we are given reasons to believe in and care about the characters without the movie feeling slogged down.

I laughed and cried and did both at the same time. The movie house I saw True Grit in was well packed and everyone was on the edge of their seats. It seems to me that everyone was thoroughly pleased and riveted.

One story telling device that I wondered about at first but now appreciate was the use of Mattie’s narration in the beginning. I liked it because it allowed us as an audience to know that she (if no one else) would survive. We were let off the hook of worrying about her survival to then be better freed up to enjoy “how” she got through her adventure–not “if”.

I love the moral ambiguity of much of the film.
There are plenty of examples of it in True Grit but there is an interesting sense of justice that occurs. In the first narration Mattie says in essence “justice will find you. You can’t get away with anything in this life.” and she experiences that herself: her vengeance costs her an arm and perhaps plays a part in her life of isolation and loss (never seeing Rooster again either).

Mattie herself is brought into the ambiguity in her desire for revenge and is heightened when we find that Tom Chaney is indeed ‘simple’.

What also works is that True Grit inhabits an American West that is closer to reality than many ‘Westerns’ of late that are really action films set in a fantasy West (think 3:10 to Yuma). In this way, I feel True Grit is not just a great film but reveals that the genre is definitely not dead.
(I place it among recent ‘Westerns’ The Proposition and Appaloosa and less recently Unforgiven)

Oh, and the action sequences are tense, well shot, and don’t pull you out of the experience. Note well, future directors! You don’t need shaky cam! Strong characters, situations that matter, and smart use of sound will carry you through. See also ‘No Country for Old Men’.