First thing’s first: leave John Wayne at the door. While it is irresistible to compare/contrast Jeff Bridges and the Duke in their portrayals of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, it does little to illuminate the merits of the Coens’ latest foray into genre filmmaking; the original True Grit is not a yardstick by which to measure the new one. Perhaps more relevant is the source novel by Charles Portis, an often funny Western story distinguished by the idiosyncratic tone of the narrator’s voice — that of the stubborn-minded, Presbyterian Mattie Ross, recalling her adventures as a 40-year-old spinster. The Coens stay true to Mattie’s authority as narrator, framing the opening and closing of the film with her voice-over in order to reinforce her point of view.
And that point of view is one flavored by extreme stubbornness, the cool common sense of a lawyer, and, though hidden beneath those other traits, the frail naivety of a child. Mattie’s father is murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a perpetual two-bit lout, as he tries to stop a drunk Chaney from acting brashly. Brought to town to attend to her father’s death, fourteen-year-old Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) makes the proper arrangements as if it were her profession, quickly and decisively. Upon seeing her father’s body in the coffin, she does not weep. Instead, Mattie quickly confirms his identity, pays the undertaker, makes inquiries into hiring a marshal, and (in one of the great exchanges of dialogue that the film offers — and there are many) sells back the ponies her father had bought before his death.
In a state of suppressed indignant rage, Mattie seeks out the toughest marshal to facilitate her fantasy of revenge. She finds the pot-bellied, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, an ex-Confederate soldier with a love of the bottle played with worn-in perfection by Jeff Bridges. They are joined by a vain, mustachioed Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has also been tracking Chaney on hire for a few months, and set off into Arkansas territory in pursuit. Mattie chooses Cogburn because, she is told, he is a man of “true grit.” This is not only a trait that she admires above all others, but one that she constantly tries to assert. Mattie, assumed pitiable as a child and a girl, is constantly privy to proving she can handle whatever is thrown at her, that she can win any argument and make her own way. In a telling scene, she crosses a strong river with her pony after being denied a ferry and told she could not accompany Cogburn and LaBoeuf. However, the journey on which she embarks with Cogburn turns out to be beyond her expectations. And since we are so strongly linked with her character and her point of view, we as an audience strongly identify with her wonderment, fright and awe.
How uncanny, for example, is the sight of a corpse hanging from a high limb deep in the woods. Or, how horrible to see a man’s fingers chopped off and then another man’s chest destroyed by a rifle. It is in these new experiences and encounters with violence and things unknown to her that Mattie’s eyes — wide-open, absorbing everything — betray a sense of fright, reminding us that she is, after all, a child (I am breaking my own rules here, but Kim Darby in the original film could never offer any such reading). In other words, True Grit can be understood not only as a Western and a revenge story, but as a coming-of-age film with the air of a fairy tale.
Some of the criticisms against the film have been that it’s “too safe” or that it isn’t “Coens-y” enough, the commentators of which expecting more revisionism within the genre — meaning bloodier, darker — which seems to miss the point. The novel in itself is in many ways a revisionist one, especially in its tone and its placement of a fourteen-year-old girl at the center of it, and it’s easy to see how it resonates with the directors’ tastes thematically, morally, and, beyond that, in its language and sense of humor.
Consider, for example, the villain Tom Chaney. As played by Josh Brolin, he is a backwards idiot who has a tragically funny voice that constantly mumbles, “Everything is against me,” not the monster we have imagined through Mattie’s description and the trail of his misdeeds—a perpetual loser, someone who never gets a lucky break. Upon sitting with him again, he is, as Josh Brolin has said in an interview, “bizarrely conversational” and it seems that even Mattie feels sorry for him. This complicates the morality of vengeance as well as the satisfaction of finding what you have nearly killed yourself looking for (that is, of course, until Chaney turns into the sociopath we have suspected him to be). The Coens didn’t have to do much else than stick to the source material to make a Coens film.
Damon as LaBoeuf is very funny and, again, Bridges is fantastic. You can almost smell Bridges’ Cogburn off the screen he meshes with the character so well. A wonderful physical actor, Bridges is able to use every movement of his body to portray the tired, aging master gunslinger so convincingly that you almost forget John Wayne tried it the first time (oops, I did it again). The biggest and most pleasant surprise, however, is the previously unknown Hailee Steinfeld, who is not only able to go toe to toe with such heavyweights, but does so seemingly effortlessly. Carter Burwell’s score strongly evokes the hymnals of the Old West in a moving way and Roger Deakins’ photography brings the most out of the Midwestern landscape. This is top-notch filmmaking in all areas (though not infallible, but who needs to split hairs?), and at this point I don’t think movie fans are expecting anything less from the Coens.