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California Literary Review

Movie Review: True Grit


Movie Review: True Grit

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.

Movie Poster: True Grit

True Grit

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.

CLR [rating:4]

Movie Still: True Grit

Jeff Bridges Plays Rooster Cogburn in True Grit
[Photo credit: Wilson Webb, © 2010 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.]

“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.

True Grit Trailer

Dan Fields is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in Film. He has written for the California Literary Review since 2010. He is also co-founder and animator for Fields Point Pictures, and the frontman of Houston-based folk band Polecat Rodeo. Google+, Twitter



  1. Lue Ann Lott

    February 12, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    I especially enjoyed the “awkwardly formal” dialogue of the characters. After reading many letters written by my GG grandfather whose writings bear a remarkably similar sentence structure and word useage, I found that the viewer was forced to really LISTEN to all the exchanges between characters to fully understand the entire flow of conversation.

  2. Dave Bassignani

    January 15, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    Great performance by Jeff Bridges. Gruffy and scruffy voice and appearance was superb. The other actors did a great job as well. The movie tried not to replace John Wayne, but instead re-told the story using great acting and cinematography.
    I thoroughly enjoyed the movie from start to finish.

  3. BluePhildog

    January 13, 2011 at 1:01 am

    Like an old grey cat stalking a bed to lay, True Grit never settles, instead it makes one merely nap. Beautiful to watch, but so are the clouds, and they are free to watch. They are fave directors, but it seems that grit here is defined as the ability to make a buck, any subtext intended or otherwise, is merely the grit between greasy greenbacks.

  4. swamprat

    January 1, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    ah westerns …everybody is damn expert well listen up everything from the fire arms to the tack used is proper for the time period her fathers old black powder dragoon with the powder flask and bullet mould the texas saddle used by Damon the spurs the boots everything was right as for the acting told the story she was smarter than her years and much a lady Rooster is Rooster what did ya expect go see it its worth the time and you will be entertained ….nuff said

  5. W Meyer

    December 30, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    A mistake of a film. Lousy script with a needless tacked-on ending.
    Stilted dialog that the actors deliver unconvincingly.
    They use the same gag twice, the one where the “little girl” fire the “big gun” that knocks her down.
    There was one good scene where Mattie negotiates with the trader.
    Not offensive but not worth the time to watch.

  6. henry cabot beck

    December 29, 2010 at 2:25 am

    Jim Beaver about nailed it, except, I wouldn’t call either films or the book rollicking, exactly–all three are droll–it’s nearly a black comedy at heart–and while the first movie is a tad broader, there’s a smidgen of wit in the new one, though it doesn’t seem to know how to ride that pony for very long. Which is odd, because some of the Coen films are as funny as they’re meant to be (and some aren’t).

    It’s irksome that they made these grand pronouncements about being truer to the book, because if I taught a class on a faithful representation of book-to-movie, Hathaway’s picture would be right up there with The Maltese Falcon. In fact the new picture can only claim a few details that are in their picture and missing from the older version, including the age of the actress (which is pretty meaningless) and the coda, showing Mattie, briefly, in 1903. (weird how they went out of their way to leave Younger and James uncredited) But the Coen version jumps the tracks far more than the first version, and in a few jarring ways that I won’t detail. Funny how they abandoned their rollicking sensibilities when they needed them the most. The picture could have used a lot more Dude, or, better yet, another broad Clooney loonie as Cogburn–he’s a much righter age for the character than either Wayne or Bridges. A decade or two ago, we might have seen a Coen True Grit with John Goodman as Cogburn and Steve Buscemi as Chaney. That would have been fun.

  7. David Lynch

    December 27, 2010 at 10:57 am

    I have seen true grit with the duke, and with just seeing the previews of the remake, i’m sorry jeff, but your not a good rooster. I barley made it through the trailer. I could only watch it once.

  8. Movie Person

    December 27, 2010 at 7:36 am

    Did not care at all for this movie. Save your money rent the original.

  9. Lee Haynes

    December 26, 2010 at 3:05 am

    Walking out of the theater, after watching “True Grit”, I turned to my sister and said, “Jeff Bridges should win the Oscar for best actor.”

    The movie was enjoyable to watch and since I have not seen the John Wayne version of “True Grit” my impression was not tainted with confusing comparisons. In Texas terminology, this movie is just plain good from beginning to end. No complaints.

    Here is wishing Jeff Bridges good luck to win the Oscar and I will wait to hear his acceptance speech.

    Way to go Starman-way to go!

  10. Jim Beaver

    December 25, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    “Sidesteps any substantial resemblance” to the John Wayne version? Scarcely! There probably aren’t 15 lines of dialog that are demonstrably different in the two films, the evolution of the story, scene by scene, is virtually identical, and the only substantial *difference* between the two films is in tone and humor. The Coens are brilliant filmmakers, but it seems to me that instead of their announced course of filming the book rather than remaking the 1969 version (which was extremely faithful to the book, as well, except for the last scene), they appear to have made a movie the greatest purpose of which was to avoid being the 1969 film. Thus it is a film made from avoidance. But by avoiding anything that smacked of the 1969 film (except plot and dialog), they have thrown out some big babies with the bathwater–particularly the very humor which the book is loaded with and which the 1969 film captured superbly. Grandly comic lines are thrown away quite deliberately, so that they become mildly amusing. I wish I had a dollar for every 1968 review of the book that used the word “rollicking.” There’s nothing rollicking about the 2010 film. It’s a superb piece of filmmaking, but it’s less true to the spirit of the novel than the film the Coens wanted to avoid remaking.

  11. John Free

    December 25, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    A refreshing change, to my way of thinking…the Coen’s typically depart from the mainstream and because they continue that worldview in “True Grit” …serves the audience well.

    “Grit” almost struck me as “Shakespearean” in its irony and tongue-in-cheek humor…

    A few hours well invested for those seeking ADULT entertainment…a rare commodity these days.

  12. i.speakethD.truth

    December 25, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    What a great pleasure to finally see a movie that was a pleasure to see in all regards.\
    How can I say this? Because I did not want to leave my seat to go to the toilet. I had to wait until the movie ended.
    A very enjoyable movie without the use of high tech computer manipulations of the scenes.

  13. D

    December 25, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    Another poor critical reading. The film is quite faithful to the original in many regards, but it is nothing if not marked by the “bitter irony” that colors almost every film ever made by the Coens. How could it fail to be? The ending is a low-key horror, as so many of the films made by the Coen brothers have been. Mattie’s retribution is a thing of messy collateral damage, if nothing else, and she has grown up into a black-garbed, embittered, one-handed spinster…Merely surviving hardly seems an edifying or admirable lesson or message in this film, or that of the novel by Portis.

  14. June

    December 25, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Loved the definition given for the somewhat “elusive” definition/interpretation of the word “grit”.

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