Film Review – True Grit
One of the many inconveniences of being a 14-year-old girl in the 1880s was that if you had a death to avenge, you were going to need to hire some help to do it. This obstacle is no deterrent to the central character of Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit, which opens across the U.S. on December 22nd. Her steadfast goal to find the man who shot her father and see him hanged provides a basis for a Western that might seem overly typical if it didn’t come from her distinct perspective. In this sense, True Grit is a genre story with a twist; given their filmography, it’s hardly surprising that the Coens found themselves drawn to this material.
Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, the girl who realizes that if she does not take matters into her own hands, the man who killed her father will escape unpunished. I’m sure the major draw for many looking forward to the film is the chance to see Jeff Bridges as the ornery, wise-cracking U.S. Marshal caught up in her scheme. But my anticipation and concern lay with Mattie, the narrator and protagonist of the excellent 1968 Charles Portis novel on which the film is based. She is one of the great female characters of 20th century literature, and fortunately, the Coens have done her justice. They don’t pull back from Steinfeld’s performance, letting Mattie dominate conversations in all her no-nonsense, sharp-minded, sharp-tongued glory, with beautiful glimmers here and there of the bits of childhood that still have a hold on her personality. It’s a wonderful thing that they found this young actress who can hold her own against Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin; she simply shines as the center of the film.
As Mattie takes on the hunt for the outlaw Tom Chaney (Brolin), her family’s former employee, she inquires as to who is the best Marshal in the area. By her standards, Rooster Cogburn fits the definition. Certainly, he has killed the most men. Coming up against the blaze of Steinfeld’s Mattie, Jeff Bridges gives a perfect performance as the gruff, mumbling, one-eyed Cogburn. At first refusing to take on the task of hunting down the killer, he eventually cannot resist both the money and the pushiness of his new “employer” (as she amusingly calls herself). Complicating matters is the third member who will join our merry band, Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Damon), who hunts Chaney for crimes previous to Mattie’s father’s death. The characters oscillate between knowing it is best to pool resources, and wanting nothing to do with one another.
A peculiar and wonderful chemistry exists between these three actors. The characters spar both verbally and physically, mostly in amusing ways, with a few more serious moments mixed in. (The film is much funnier than its trailer lets on.) Damon plays up the comedy more than his co-stars in his role of the self-important, cliché-spewing Ranger, and the results balance so finely that I’ll be surprised if he’s not added to the regular roster of Coen players. Josh Brolin, too, without an abundance of screen time, does well giving us a picture of the villain Chaney. (Let us all pretend that this was the only Western he was involved with this year, and forget that other comic-based film that tried to share the genre.)
The Coens spoke the truth when they said that they were making an adaptation of the novel, not a remake of the original film. I haven’t even seen the 1969 John Wayne vehicle, and I can tell you that. This is, hands down, the most faithful novel adaptation I’ve ever seen. It follows the storyline exactly; I can’t even think of a scene they left out. It hits upon the tone of dark humor mixed with disturbing action that makes the novel so engrossing. And, most importantly, it preserves the clever, biting dialogue. The Coens were the perfect people to work with this material, which is filled with characters and scenarios that almost seem like they’re going to be typical Western tropes, but then veer in other, stranger directions.
Perhaps oddly alongside the twists of the story elements, the filmmakers shy away from using much of the inventive style of cinematography or editing that we might expect from them at this point. They seem to have wanted to make the film in (mostly) the traditional way a Western was done. Within this context, they succeed (though I could have done with less of the folksy background music that comes along with this choice). But I have to wonder what brilliance they might have achieved if they had let go a bit more and really pushed at the edges of what a Western is “supposed” to look like.
Still, True Grit is very good, maybe truly great, depending on what you want from it. It may not feel as tonally or visually creative or hard-hitting as something like Fargo or No Country For Old Men, but those comparisons may also be unfair. The film provides a solid entry in an under-served genre, and the actors, as these terrific characters, couldn’t be better. I would love to see Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld all get Oscar nominations. What they do bringing these oddballs to life is not nearly as easy as they make it look.
Final Grade: A-