Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Screenplay by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross
Matt Damon as LaBoeuf
Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney
Running time: 110 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images.
“The Quality Of Grit Is Not Strain’d…”
Leave it to the Coen brothers to top off the year with a peculiar surprise. True Grit, their new adaptation of the late-60s Charles Portis novel, sidesteps any substantial resemblance to the well-known version starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell (ack!), and Kim Darby (ick!). The Coens play this western adventure fairly straight, with a healthy dose of dark humor, but without the pervading sense of bitter irony which drives films like Fargo, Blood Simple, and No Country For Old Men.
The protagonist, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), is a young girl out to avenge the murder of her father by a man named Chaney (Josh Brolin). Offered her choice of disciplined and fair-minded bounty hunters to help her find the killer, she instead chooses Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed shambling wreck of a man known for his “true grit.” Mattie, who despite all her high talk wants blood spilled even more than she wants justice done, judges him the right man for the job.
Meanwhile, another party comes calling. Matt Damon plays an arrogant and erudite Texas Ranger who dresses like a character in a Wild West show. He is after Chaney for a separate bounty on a separate crime. He walks the line between uneasy ally and fierce rival to Mattie and Cogburn in a race to the end of the fugitive’s trail.
This movie looks beautiful from beginning to end, with an adoring eye for landscape reminiscent of John Ford’s classic westerns. The atmosphere is seamless, down to the last detail of each character’s appearance and manner of dress. Much of the dialogue is awkwardly formal, and indeed people probably did not use many contractions back then. It takes some getting used to, but whether you eventually warm to it as historically accurate, or as a sly satire on period pieces, it works. Though there is a goodly measure of adventure and action in the film, there are also many extended scenes of lofty banter, all of which end abruptly, and occasionally terminate on a note of shocking violence. This mildly disorienting pace, coupled with a love of grandiose language – as in earlier works like Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? – is a key element of the Coens’ unmistakable style. They are particularly brilliant with scenes involving desk clerks, shopkeepers, and other offbeat members of the service class. Mattie’s negotiations with a befuddled cotton trader over stolen ponies make for several scenes of understated hilarity. There are a few bewildering touches of non sequitur as well, the most notable involving an itinerant man riding around the woods in a bearskin. Do not, however, expect Bridges “The Dude” to plunge into a Big Lebowski Kenny Rogers dream sequence. For the most part, this is a faithful genre film, peppered lightly with the bizarre.
As interpreted by Jeff Bridges, Cogburn is a long way from John Wayne’s stony performance. Between periods of active manhunting, he is mostly drunk. Apparently, whiskey is to the marshal what cocaine was to Sherlock Holmes. Bridges is clearly having a blast, alternating between barely coherent mumbles and glib wisdom concerning the dire realities of life, calling to mind the late great George C. Scott when he played The Flim-Flam Man. This character adds a genuine sense of humor to his Oscar-winning Crazy Heart role, without being so damned maudlin.
Hailee Steinfeld, in the leading role, does a tough job well. She plays a self-assured, loquacious, and fiercely stubborn young woman who gets on the nerves of all the characters without doing the same to the audience. The reason for this seems to be that she is usually in the right. She also has as much grit as either of the men accompanying her into the wilderness, and her resourcefulness will prove as vital as theirs. Her tenacity impresses the crusty Cogburn early on, winning his respect and devotion whether or not he is willing to admit it. Damon’s haughty ranger is a harder case, but ultimately gets the chance to show some loyalty and grit of his own. Damon excels at playing understated oddballs, and once he breaks the role in for a few minutes, he is quite enjoyable.
The bad guys deserve a nod as well. Josh Brolin, looking like a young Lee Marvin, plays Chaney as ambiguously slow-witted. At one point, Damon’s character insists that the man is a cunning criminal acting the fool for a ruse, but it sure seems convincing once he shows up. He radiates an eerie, undefinable menace. Whatever his real story, he seems like a man who might indeed need killing. Barry Pepper, as the leader of Chaney’s outlaw posse, is a supremely nasty fellow. Strident, slobbery and gaunt, he makes exceptional use of his brief screen time. He also bears more than a passing resemblance to Harry Dean Stanton, which is always a plus for an unsettling villain.
As with O Brother and other works, the Coens put great thought into their musical selection for the score of True Grit. The recurring melodic theme is a tender piano rendition of “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms.” This is not only a wonderful classic hymn, but – in a choice that must be more than coincidental – also the favorite tune of Harry Powell, the murderous preacher played by Robert Mitchum in The Night Of The Hunter. You will hear other familiar strains woven throughout, including “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” but “Everlasting Arms” is Mattie’s main theme. It continually recalls the staunch Protestant upbringing implied by her modesty and bearing – an interesting complement to her adventurous spirit and the vengeful fire smoldering in her belly.
The elusive nature of “grit” is a theme spanning the full length of the film. As Joe Pesci might put it, “what is grit?” It is a quality never explicitly defined, but seems to be just the right combination of toughness and bravery to get the most dangerous job done. It may not appear outwardly until absolutely necessary, but those who have it deep down will summon it up when they truly need it. It also involves a certain amount of self-sacrifice. None of the characters, no matter how resourceful or upstanding, will emerge untouched by pain and suffering. It is enough merely to survive. Escaping outright destruction seems to be the ultimate test of who has grit, and who has none.