True Grit doesn’t feel like the first western by the Coen Brothers, just the first western by the Coen Brothers set in the Wild West.
So many of the Coens’ movies — Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men — straddle genres, nod in style and form towards golden-age Hollywood, and employ to new effect the cinematic language of the great western filmmakers: Ford, Hawks, Huston, Zimmerman, etc.
True Grit is a western in a grand, old-fashioned kind of way, not quite as breathtakingly expansive as a John Ford movie, but a western more John Wayne than Clint Eastwood. Which makes sense. The film is a remake of the 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel that earned Wayne his only Oscar. Portis also provides the Coens with a familiar palette of characters: hard-hewn, morally ambiguous men full of pride and wit.
The revelation here, though, is True Grit’s truly great leading heroine: Mattie Ross, remarkably realized by the young actress Hailee Steinfeld. Fourteen-year-old Mattie is a tough-nosed, fast-talking whip, with wit and smarts clever enough to out-hustle a horse dealer and poised enough to spar with both her accomplished co-stars, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. It will be interesting to see if Steinfeld can translate her spunk into other roles, but what is clear is that she owns this one.
The film opens with Mattie’s arrival in a frontier town. She has traveled west from Arkansas to Oklahoma to hire a bounty hunter to avenge her father’s murder. She wants Rooster Cogburn, an old curmudgeon, but a marshal with a ruthless reputation and a track record for getting his men.
We meet Rooster in a courthouse, where he is sitting as a witness at the trial of an outlaw he has brought in. In the first of the film’s many scenes that excel verbally, Cogburn and a cross-examining lawyer twist their way through lies and hyperbole. It’s the Coen Brothers, who wrote the screenplay adaptation of Portis’ book, that emerge as the scene’s stars, once again displaying their high verbal intelligence and masterful way with antiquated language.
This is Rooster Cogburn’s third visit to the big screen (John Wayne played the role in two films), and his allure is immediately apparent. He’s a darkly appealing hero with swagger — a typified Western man whose hard life breeds pragmatic cynicism and drunkenly good humor. In Bridges’ hands, Coburn has a sweaty, scruffy appeal with a grandfatherly presence that isn’t well hidden behind his tough-guy persona. He tries to evade Mattie’s uninhibited advances for his services, but you know he can’t but oblige.
As LeBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who invites himself along on the manhunt, Damon has sunk himself so deeply in his character you hardly recognize the celebrity. He is a charmingly comedic — and moral — counter-weight to Bridges’ Cogburn, and their rapport is genuinely entertaining.
In the film, the two heroes, Bridges’ bounty hunter and Damon’s dandy Ranger, are engaged in a classic roundup: the capture of a murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), in Indian country. But their pursuit carries a sense of existential malaise that feels familiar to many of the Coens’ characters. These are men propelled by the flaws in their characters, caught up almost unwillingly in the drama that has been set forth for them. It is a film less about the hunt then the hunting, and what is truly in pursuit is “grit” itself — that treasured characteristic that allows tough men to prove the true depths of their humanity.
True Grit is a dance of personalities, beautifully shot and acted, accompanied by a screenplay so rich and lovely that, despite the guns and action, you could close your eyes and let the film work like music.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures