“True Grit” (2010)
This is the story of young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), only 14-years-old, who wants to avenge the death of her father. He was ruthlessly killed at the hands of a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Scrappy and resourceful, Mattie recruits a haggard old bounty hunter, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to help her in killing Chaney for what he has done. Cogburn reluctantly sets to go out on the journey with her and together they traverse the gunslinging western frontier on horseback.
“True Grit” is based on the novel by Charles Portis and a remake of the 1969 film of the same name where John Wayne won an Oscar playing the role of Rooster Cogburn.
It is a story already laid out to be told, and so this leaves Joel and Ethan Coen to work at their best. Nothing about the tale is too complicated. It is, at its core, a tale of good and evil, of what is right and wrong. It’s all about the storytelling here, and allowing the Coens to tell it how they want, that’s a thing of beauty. This is them casting aside their usual tricks and flexing their muscles in their mastery of the craft that is filmmaking.
And what they have lovingly crafted is a glorious western. With gorgeous cinematography we’ve come to know from Roger Deakins and a score from Carter Burwell that hits all the right tones, at the heart of it all is the rich dialogue that trails off like the twang of a guitar giving time for each and every line to settle in. It is a deliberately slow-moving movie in this respect, and so the best way to enjoy is to ease back with the pace and admire every detail.
I can’t compare Jeff Bridge’s Rooster Cogburn to John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn simply because I haven’t seen it. I probably should. But, in any case, Bridges inhabits the role as the purposely growling and crotchety old actor should. He’s perfect. With his crazy grey hair haphazardly slicked back and a patch covering one eye, his performance appears effortless. His inevitable Oscar nomination is well deserved, and right along with him touting what should be another nomination is the newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, 13, as Mattie Ross.
Steinfeld’s impeccable skill in the role is presented early on during a lengthy scene where she barters with a rat of a horse trader (Dakin Matthews). She, using her swift words and intelligence, gets her way easily enough. It’s a fantastic scene. Our introduction to Bridges’ in his role comes to us in a similar fashion. In another lengthy scene, he’s being questioned at a court trial, and his gruff responses and demeanor get us to believe that Bridges is an ideal fit for this man, Cogburn. The entire film, however, belongs to Mattie Ross. From the serene opening all the way through to the thoughtful and nostalgic epilogue, this is her narrative.
They enter increasingly dangerous Indian Territory in search of Chaney, Mattie bringing along with her who she calls the “one-eyed fat man.” A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), occasionally joins the search dropping in and out at pivotal moments. LaBoeuf is there to bag Chaney for a large reward, and this rustles Mattie’s feathers because she paid Cogburn specifically to have Chaney captured and killed her way, nobody else’s. Damon’s performance here must not be forgotten as he carries great weight in a supporting role.
On the side of villainy is Josh Brolin as the nasty Tom Chaney along with Barry Pepper who plays Lucky Ned, a spitting leader of a gang Chaney ends up with. This leads to a charge across a barren valley with guns flaring and horse hooves stomping furiously. While “True Grit” has an emphasis on violence, some of which is quite graphic for being PG-13, and the grit and dirt of the Old West, it really leaves you smiling, which is one of its greatest feats.
This film is the first in the Coen brothers’ career that is a straightforward exercise in a genre. It is a western, but it’s not a reinvention of a modern western like “No Country for Old Men.” There’s humor, but it’s not their usual humor. There’s nothing wry, deadpan, quirky or strange as in most of their other movies. This is the directors using all they know, and know well, to tell a simple story with simple artistry. While “True Grit” is still unmistakably a Coen brothers movie, they have now officially transcended their own particular style and have done so with such distinguished grace. It’s a film I fell in love with more than I ever thought I would, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.