These people are dirty, grimy, and a shower is never in question. Through this there is a sense of honesty among them. Rooster Cogburn is first introduced in an outhouse recovering from a long night. Then he is seen as a witness in a trial where it is put into question whether he was justified in murdering two men. Young Maddie Ross sees the potential in Cogburn and hires him to track down her father’s murderer.
Despite all of the reputation and promotion, this is really Maddie’s story not Cogburn’s. She is in almost every scene and the actress Hallie Steinfeld dominates it. She is up against A-listers like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, but she holds her own. The first half hour is just devoted to her moving around town putting her affairs in order. What could be tedious ordeals ends up being one of the most entertaining parts of the movie because of her performance and the Coen’s wit. The language is vividly realized and operates in a fun rhythm.
Even though this western isn’t as clean as the Hollywood pictures from decades ago, there is still allowance for romanticism. There is affection for the genre and that is seen as they frame Cogburn into beautiful shots that show the blueness of the sky and the openness of the plain. There are gunfights and chases that remind the audience of the thrills of having a western.
The intelligence of the script is displayed naturally. There are plenty of funny lines throughout, but the Coens never draw too much attention to it. Instead of telegraphing their jokes, they actually do the opposite. Most of Cogburn’s lines are incomprehensible as he is drunkenly mumbling. When the characters are telling stories that might be perceived as themes of the movie, it is not contrived. They are entertaining anecdotes on their own. Must like the film, it is incredibly fun on the surface level before diving deeper.
This holds up as one of the best Coen Brothers movies in many years. With every film, they tighten their craft while still feeling like energetic young filmmakers. They bring out some amazing performances by new and experienced actors while knowing how to keep a story vibrant. There have been some criticisms that they don’t care for their own characters, but the last fifteen minutes of this film ended up being surprisingly sentimental.