There’s a core lesson somewhere inside the remake (or novel re-adaptation) of True Grit about pulling on bootstraps, feeling the bitter cold of the ride, and doing what needs to be done. Of course, that lesson is buried beneath a lot of snide remarks and funny moments. Even if the lesson is hard to find, the film itself is a reminder that there are few things quite as entertaining as seeing a snotty little girl and an eye-patched drunkard go exact a little buck shot revenge.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is desperate to track down the man who killed her father, so she enlists the reluctant help of sodden U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who takes every opportunity to brag about himself. Through a tough ride in Indian Territory, Mattie comes gun barrel to gun barrel with murderer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) with a chance to pull the trigger and right his wrong.
The Coen Brothers have yet again proven why they are the most solidly dependable directors working today. They’ve also proven yet again that they can make just about any kind of film. It’s true that they’ve worked in the realm of the Western before, and revenge is nothing new to them, but with True Grit they’ve combined the sensibilities of several of their comedies in order to create something tonally different than anything they’ve made before.
It’s impossible not to relate the film to its Academy Award-winning predecessor, but here, the production succeeds by delivering something new that feels familiar. Much of the dialog and situations are cribbed right from the novel (making it similar to the 1969 version), but the Coens have chosen to put more emphasis on Mattie’s character. The charm works brilliantly.
That success is due in great measure to Hailee Steinfeld who, like last year’s Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air, stands up to veteran actors in such a way that even they seem to be in awe of her. It’s her film, and she grabs it by the scruff of the neck to tame it. She plays Mattie like a teenage Nurse Rached – a salty woman beyond her years trapped in a little girl’s body. Her dry delivery is so arid, it would make most British comedians shudder, and yet she somehow manages to be sweet and likable in the mean time. Maybe it’s sympathy on her side, but Mattie knows what she wants and always gets it.
Of course the acting caliber is stellar all the way around. Bridges (who constantly looks completely dehydrated) plays Rooster close to the chest while Damon is flamboyant as LaBoeuf, and the two comes together to make one unified, mustachioed hero. Everyone involved, from Barry Pepper as the outlaw Ned, to Ed Corbin as Bear Man share the load to make each moment enjoyable.
As with most Coen films (and most Carter Burwell scores) the music fits the moods phenomenally – taking on the heritage of old hymns and the surprisingly striking mood of deep piano chords to bolster each scene. Without fail, the whole endeavor stretches toward Iris DeMent lending her sweetly haunting vocals to “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” to give a period-appropriate punctuation mark to the preceding scenes.
The film is wondrously entertaining, but it doesn’t stick to the bones like most revenge films because the focus is on humor. Mattie and her men swiftly dispatch just about every task set before them in such a way that there’s never an opportunity for the emotional swell to make the inevitable confrontation meaningful beyond the gut reaction of hatred endured at the beginning. Mattie’s task, like her soul, is never stripped bare to show the horror at it’s core. Because she remains stoic, the impact of her gun blasts are dulled.
Part of that is because the movie is a comedy for the bulk of its runtime. It’s funny from beat to beat because the flatness of the characters and the epic nature of their journey allows for it. Mattie and Rooster are two no-nonsense individuals that happen to encounter a strange world (and encounter each other in it), and a fantastic amount of laughs is mined from those situations. Much of the credit there goes directly to novelist Charles Portis, but the Coen’s earned their stripes by carefully adapting from the novel.
As such (and just like the novel), the film is also not a great example of the Western genre. The characters and their humor could be transported to just about any time or place in history with about the same effect. Rooster could have been a surly Kung Fu master, LaBoeuf could have been a Lieutenant in the French Foreign Legion, Mattie could have been a young space explorer whose father was killed by aliens. The setting is secondary to the story, even though the production design looks ripped out of late 19th century Arkansas.
Over all, True Grit feels like a film that demands a second viewing not for the mysteries or intrigue it contains, but because it seems to have a burning ember glowing at its center – a promise that there are more layers beneath the obvious entertainment on the outside. At the core of it is a lesson about self-sufficiency and friendship, but the movie as a whole is slight and digestible. A task needs to be done, and Mattie always gets what she wants.
The Upside: Incredible acting, writing and directing showcased with a grand score and cinematography.
The Downside: A story that feels too lean and laughs that mute the strength of the drama.
On the Side: Jeff Bridges did not actually lose an eye to play the role of Rooster Cogburn. It’s true!