(Ethan Coen, 2010)
The Coen Brothers, in this mature phase, seem more rewarding than ever before, their cinema more reflective and with more shades and tones than they were once either capable of or interested in. Here they adapt Charles Portis' superb novel into a blackly comic, violent reading of the American creation myth and in the process come up with their most moving and perhaps most accessible film.
The pacing is classically true to the genre, and that suits the Coens' loquacious, rambling style, allowing them to showcase a series of eccentrics in their first act as the principles meet and prepare for the pursuit to come.
When that pursuit does come, it's leisurely and chatty, with character the dominant element until the plot finally sparks to life in the last 40 minutes or so. That means that these actors are allowed to work on their characters, and they all feel lived-in and comfortable, each of the principals quite superb. Bridges has fun as Cogburn, never apologetic about his own personality and with a streak of steel in that one eye, but Damon finds both the humour and pathos in his Texas Ranger and Stanfield more or less effortlessly carries the first act alone.
Roger Deakins was born to shoot Westerns, on the evidence of this film and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and he finds and lights textures that bring this world to life throughout, from snow falling in woodland scrub to the whitewashed primness of turn of the century Memphis.
This is the Coens at their most mainstream, but still filled with their many virtues: great, witty dialogue, dynamic visual choices, both in shot and editing selection, instantly appealing characters, and easy but thrillingly inventive storytelling. Perhaps only their old weaknesses have melted away with time: an over-reliance on irony, which has been replaced with a more soulful, even serious sense of engagement with their material - their last few films have seemed to grapple more intently with notions of mortality and fate than their early works flirtations could ever manage. And then there are gambits beyond the imagination of most filmmakers here; most notably the final moonlit ride and the coda, which introduces an elegiac, emotional strain to their work quite unlike anything they've ever attempted before.