‘True Grit’ Brings Out the Best in the Coen Brothers

It’s 1873 in the Wild West. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has lost her father at the hands of the murderous drifter Tom Chaney, and she vows to bring Chaney to justice because “the wicked flee when none pursueth.”

This quote from Proverbs 28:1 begins True Grit, and the words fade into the image of Mattie’s dead father lying in the dirt and Chaney on his horse as he races to escape justice. The narrative leaps forward just as quickly, maintains a rapid pace, and excels in straightforward storytelling that is a refreshing change from the Coen brothers’ typical quirkiness. The film is narrated in a flashback by 40-year-old Mattie, who ignites her tale with an ominous declaration that is a theme throughout: “You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another. There is nothing free.”

After the killing—when Mattie’s hapless mother sends her off to settle her deceased father’s affairs—adults try to cheat her out of what she is due. But the no-nonsense Mattie is wise beyond her years, persistent, outspoken, sharp-tongued, stoic, and clever enough to outwit unscrupulous old men. Steinfeld, who was only 13 during the filming, delivers a remarkable performance for an actress of any age and nails her character’s speech pattern, which is that of an uptight schoolmarm. Mattie spouts scripture, corrects others’ spelling, and, when negotiations aren’t going her way, often warns that she will “take it to the law.” Her threats of litigation are as effective in post-Civil War America as they might be today.

Mattie’s world is dangerous. Men carry guns, violence is commonplace, sickness looms in the dusty air, and sexism and racism are rampant. Mattie witnesses a hanging during which white prisoners are allowed to give their final statements, while the sole Native American is silenced by a hood thrown over his head. It’s a precarious time for everyone, but especially for a girl like Mattie, who doesn’t conform to expectations.

Female subjugation is the norm in this rough, patriarchal society, but Mattie refuses to be its victim. She also ignores a prediction that her “headstrong ways” will one day lead her “into a tight corner”. She’s determined to avenge her father’s death, and she boldly seeks the aid of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)—a grizzled, one-eyed U.S. Marshall who is rumored to have “true grit.” This character is played well by Bridges, and his portrayal of the haggard Rooster is so realistic that his voice is often too gruff to understand. But the occasional lost word doesn’t diminish his performance, and it actually increases its flavor.

Despite his tough exterior, Cogburn is taken off-guard by Mattie, and her forwardness evokes his stunned stare and rejection of her offer of employment to hunt down Chaney in the treacherous “Indian Nation.” Undeterred, Mattie makes another plea for Cogburn’s help, and she finally wears him down.

The interactions between Mattie and Cogburn are filled with tension and mutual amusement. As much as he is surprised and irritated by Mattie’s demanding nature, and as disapproving as she is of his drinking, there is a glow of admiration between them that waxes and wanes. Their relationship is, however, far less tense than that between Mattie and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon)—who is also on Chaney’s trail.

LaBoeuf’s first appearance is an example of the stunning cinematography that adorns True Grit. When Mattie encounters LaBoeuf, he is sitting on the porch of her boarding house with his boots and their jangling spurs perched proudly on the railing, dressed in full Texas Ranger uniform, awash in the blue light of dusk, holding a pipe and striking a match that illuminates his face. This grand entrance has clearly been staged by LaBoeuf, who quickly reveals himself as a conceited young man who yearns for Mattie’s adoration and expects her to dissolve into a starry-eyed groupie at the mere sight of his badge.

LaBoeuf is an initially perplexing but always fascinating addition to the storyline, and he is portrayed solidly by Damon, who has the boyish looks and sharp acting skills to pull off a character who is both sympathetic and despicable. At first glance, it’s difficult to determine whether LaBoeuf is a protector or a predator. His semi-veiled attraction to Mattie is disturbing from a contemporary viewpoint, but was generally acceptable for the era, when marriage between an older man with financial stability and a much-younger woman able to provide children was not uncommon.

But LaBoeuf’s potentially romantic interest in Mattie fades when she bluntly declines his offer to “throw in” with Mattie and Rooster on the hunt for Chaney. She also asks why LaBoeuf has been “ineffectually pursuing” Chaney, and she doesn’t hide her lack of respect for the Texas Rangers—whom she likens to rodeo clowns. LaBoeuf’s fragile pride is wounded and he angrily retaliates, calling Mattie “unattractive” and reprimanding her for giving out “very little sugar.” In this exchange, the disparity between age, sex, and power quickly becomes a weapon against a female who has overstepped the bounds of her assigned gender role.

Later, when Mattie’s “saucy” ways infuriate LaBoeuf, he violently takes out his aggression on her under the guise of socially-acceptable chastisement. This is halted by Rooster—which adds to his likeability—but his hesitation to stop LaBoeuf immediately is quite telling. Although Rooster obviously values Mattie’s spunk and doesn’t condone LaBoeuf’s actions, he seems to believe that her abrasiveness could use some toning down. “It is time for you to learn that you cannot have your way in every little particular,” Rooster subsequently tells her, and this is part of the script’s radiance. The main characters in True Grit are drawn as wonderfully human, with attributes and flaws that they recognize in each other and, ultimately, discover and correct in themselves.

It is these imperfections and the honest portrayal of highly nuanced characters that elevate True Grit. The script is also seasoned with historical references that bring the setting to life—most notably, the bitter quibbling between LaBoeuf and Rooster about the Civil War and their differing opinions of the Confederate guerilla leader William Quantrill.

The only weakness comes from Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who, despite a first encounter with Mattie that is at once frightening, awkward, and funny, is a surprisingly flat character—especially after the intense build-up to locating him. Although the portrayal of Chaney as a pathetic half-wit is a uniquely non-traditional twist on the stereotypical villain, it dilutes this character’s impact. Brolin does as much as he can with his role, but Chaney is on screen for only a short time and pales beside his gang leader, Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper)—a far more formidable and interesting scoundrel.

Just as interesting is the film’s resolution, which has been widely but unjustly criticized by those who expect all films to conclude with a saccharine, Hollywood-style ending. What becomes of Mattie is realistic, true to her character, and unhappy only from the perspective of the repressive culture she has always rebuffed.

True Grit is a gem, and its simple storyline belies the richness lurking beneath. This is a character-driven, emotional movie wrapped in a fast-paced, entertaining plot. And although the story takes place long ago, Mattie’s inspirational example of strength, perseverance, and finding one’s own “grit” is timeless.

The DVD offers several extras that provide a delightful behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making of True Grit. These include: an extended interview with Hailee Steinfeld about her experience of auditioning for and winning the role of Mattie Ross; interviews with Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges regarding Steinfeld, her character, and their own characters; and an interview with the film’s costume designer, Mary Zophres, who discusses the painstaking process that went into dressing the cast.

RATING 9 / 10