She is all her family has, the eldest child thrust into commission of her father’s final affairs. But there is more to wise Western teenager Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) than tightly wound pigtails and constitution full of misplaced gumption. She wants revenge, and won’t rest until said vendetta is served and satisfied. So she hopes to find a man with “grit”, someone who will track that no good murdering Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and lay him in his thieving tracks…just like he did her law abiding dad. Her first choice is aging Marshall Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man with a grizzled disposition, a patch over one eye, and a tendency toward strong drink. When it looks like he will refuse the job, a dimwitted dandy from Texas, Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) agrees to the assignment – with reservations.
In 1969, True Grit gave the aging, still iconic John Wayne the role of a lifetime (and his only Oscar), his “Howdy, Pilgrim!” persona wrapping co-stars Kim Darby and Glen Campbell in a homily of horse opera archetypes. Forty plus years later, the brilliant Coen Brothers continue their post-mainstreaming streak of masterpieces with their take on this material. Relying on the kind of wondrous wordplay that made efforts like Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? sing, the duo have combined a reverence for the once viable Wild West genre with a desire to stay true to Charles Portis’ original novel. There are definitely differences here between the two versions. Wayne’s was more serious, as befitting a living legend. The Coens focus on the “comedy” inherent in a young girl bossing around a couple of incomplete heroes. In doing so, they discover an whole new subtext that the first film failed to grasp.
Since the story is so simple, and is told by a wet behind the ears narrator, True Grit initially seems – dare it be said – ‘slight’. We anticipate the set-up (difficult “child” commandeering two men no longer at home on the range) and wait to see if it plays out as planned. But then we hear Mattie’s 19th century speech patterns, her unusual choice of words and ways of communicating, and we realize this is no post-modern morality tale. Instead, the Coens have created a wonderfully insular world where the rules remain rigid and the strictures strive to bring new meaning and understanding to the situations. Indeed, within this period piece precision, the brothers discover nuances and character beats so fascinating that they redirect our appreciate on the material. Before, it was all about Wayne. Now, everyone involved is a Wild West myth.
Considering her limited career in front of cameras previously, Ms. Steinfeld is undeniably amazing as Mattie. Considering that it’s her skewed view we see everything through, it’s fascinating to watch her rose-colored conceits dim and darken. She is incredulous in how she deals with elders, conning a huckster businessman who took her father and finding the key to getting Cogburn interested. Even when Damon’s lawman threatens her in a way both paternal and…’other’, she comes across as capable of handling his misguided machismo. Without a strong performance from this character, True Grit would be lost. This is definitely Mattie’s tale, her need to make a stand in a world where she feels she has little right. Thanks to the Oscar caliber work of Steinfeld, the movie more than succeeds.
Bridges is also brilliant in making us forget the legendary Duke. Even in moments which mimic the original (like the four against one open field firefight), he stands on his own. There is very little here that’s reminiscent of the past. Bridges brings a kind of haggard charisma to his portrayal, getting us to appreciate the professional buried beneath the hermit’s beard and greased alcoholism. Doubting Cogburn’s competence is one of Grit‘s best elements, a chance to demystify the man while also tweaking our own telling expectations. We know Mattie can’t make it alone, and La Boeuf seems offered up as fool’s fodder. That just leaves this unsteady symbol to save the day, and in the Coen’s construct, that’s much easier said than done.
In some weird way, True Grit is a wicked feminist fairytale. Mattie only loses control of her surroundings once, and even then her age saves her from becoming a casual victim. In the first act, she is all bossy and belligerent, only to have her eyes opened by the next part’s trek through the wild. But the time she accidentally meets up with Chaney, it’s all left in her hands. Cogburn can’t help and La Boeuf has been dismissed. It’s more than just a coming of age – it’s a coming to terms with the enormity of her request. Mattie is undoubtedly naive about the way in which the old West world works. Yet when push comes to shove, she “gets” the gun toting tests this realm requires. Talk about empowerment!
With their usual attention to detail creating a gorgeous vision of what was arguable a dirty and dreary domain, the Coens continue to surprise. From the choice of material to the manner of adaptation, they do the near impossible – make True Grit their own. This vision is part American Gothic, part old fashioned oater. It doesn’t strive to deconstruct the genre or reinvent this well worn wagon wheel. Instead, the recognize the strengths in their setting and performers, and then do everything they can to make both shimmer like jewels. The town shots remind one of the gracious balance Michael Cimino attempted with Heaven’s Gate. Similarly, the outlying territories feel smaller and more selective in scope. When the brothers want to open up the canvas, they do magnificently. But True Grit isn’t a film about vanishing vistas and the cry of a lone wolf. It’s a more personal, prickly tale this time around.
With a solid sense of humor and an eloquent way with words, True Gritis a joy on many levels. it’s adventurous and fun, yet isn’t afraid to deal in the deadliest aspects of its travails. The Coens continue to press the boundaries of art in entertainment, carving out a unique niche in cinema that, as of now, is yet to be matched. These men are marvels, looking at each new project as a chance to hone and expand their ample skill set. While no one would deny their ability to handle something like True Grit, what the Coens ultimately do with it is a revelation. Not only do they rip it from the well-earned celebrity attached to its formidable former star, they make us forget John Wayne all together. And when you consider the size of said legend, that’s quite an accomplishment.