Leave it to the Coen Brothers to surprise the world with what they don’t do, rather than what they do. When you think of the Coens, you have a sense of what to expect. True Grit contains none of that: no real snappy dialogue exchanges, no exceptionally quirky side characters, no elements of film noir, and no peculiar set pieces with strange camera angles and general weirdness. Instead, True Grit is a western, nothing else.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl, is sent to town to collect the dead body of her father, Frank Ross. Frank was a good man who was double-crossed by a hired hand by the name of Tom Chaney. Chaney, deep in the drink, lost his money at cards and robbed and killed Frank Ross in the middle of town. A town, Mattie notes, where nobody knows the Ross family and where nobody will be too concerned with tracking down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Fortunately for Mattie, she’s one smart cookie, and she knows the only way to get things done is to find the right price.
To that end, Mattie hires a US Marshall named Reuben J Cogburn, aka Rooster (Jeff Bridges), to track Chaney into Indian Territory. Along for the ride (and also out for Chaney’s bounty) is a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). As it turns out, Tom Chaney is no normal drunkard: he’s a dangerous criminal on the run from Texas law for shooting a state senator. The fact that Chaney has fallen in with a gang of outlaws will make no difference to the two lawmen or their young employer.
There’s no denying that True Grit has interesting characters, but they’re not what you’d call quirky. There’s the crude, good-hearted Rooster Cogburn, the sharp-as-a-tack 14-year-old Mattie, and the vain but skilled LaBoeuf. Jeff Bridges is simply wonderful as Rooster, a man who has seen a lot of terrible things and drinks too much as a result of his life, but who still strives to do good and be good in a cruel world. Damon does wonderful work as LaBoeuf, who is almost as good a tracker and lawman as he thinks he is. Barry Pepper has a great, brief supporting role as the noble outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper, and Josh Brolin is excellent as always as the dastardly Chaney.
However, the real star of this film just might be Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. She has a wonderful presence, a precocious nature borne not out of cuteness but out of life experience. As she says early in the film, her mother isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and as the oldest child, she was the one who was at her father’s side for all the business of running the farm. This shows, both in the deft way she handles the affairs of her father at the auction house, and in the way she communicates with both her older traveling companions.
Indeed, Mattie is more than a match for Rooster, and is able to see through the pomposity of LaBoeuf. This is a very world-weary teenager. She does wonderful things with her features and eyes throughout the film. There are a lot of subtle moments where she allows Mattie’s hard shell to slip, just slightly enough to see the scared girl behind the hard face, before she/Mattie close right back up again. These are especially evident in her confrontation with Chaney.
The script, from the Coen Brothers based off of the original book by Charles Portis, is familiar, but impressive nonetheless. Rooster Cogburn’s tart tongue crackles like a whip, and Mattie Ross’s head for figures and business make her a formidable opponent. She may be young, but she’s not dumb. Much like the novel, True Grit‘s adaptation is a western that’s heavy on the laughs, but also not short on menage and action. LaBoeuf’s Texas-centric conversation is pretty apt, considering every Texan I’ve ever met is quick to remind everyone how great Texas is and how much worse everything is when you’re not in Texas.
One of the stand-outs of this film is the cinematography. Roger Deakins is one of the best directors of photography working today, and it shows in his use of the landscape. The framing of these shots and the use of the natural envrionment as a shooting stage, including great use of hilltops, forests, and valleys, is very impressive throughout the film. This is a guy who really knows what he’s doing, which isn’t surprising given how beautiful No Country For Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford were.
The Coen Brothers seem content to stand back and let the script and actors speak for themselves in their take on the True Grit novel. The film is better for it. There’s no need to add too much style to such a simple story: the Coens let the script do the talking, and aside from a few of their signature touches, they don’t try to reinvent the western. They just do their best to present a great, classic of the genre. Mission accomplished: True Grit is as good (or maybe better) than the original.
There’s a reason True Grit is coming out at the very end of the year, in the midst of Oscar season. The cast is top notch, Carter Burwell’s use of 19th century hymns for the soundtrack is a stroke of brilliance, and young Hailee Steinfeld’s performance is one of the best I’ve seen in an actress so young, second only to Natalie Portman in The Professional/Leon.
True Grit is a brilliant western, and it’s less a remake than it is an entirely new story that just happens to contain Rooster Cogburn. While it’s not what you’d expect from the Coen Brothers, it’s a reminder yet again that they are more than just the funny black comedy guys. This is a real horse opera, not a Coen Brothers version of a western.
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