Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (screenplay), Charles Portis (novel)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin
True Grit is not about the large names behind the camera and on the marquee, nor is it haunted by the ghost of John Wayne. Above all, it is a fatalistic Western with more dry wit than dead bodies behind its lessons. It is a tall tale about a small girl and her quest for blood.
Don’t be fooled by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, or Josh Brolin. The Coen Brothers know that many who aren’t drawn in by their own names will be drawn in by the names of those stars or fans of the original film that won John Wayne his Oscar. All the hype surrounding the mystical one-eyed Marshall and his eye-patch has made many lose sight over the fact that this is indeed a film about that 14-year-old and the loss of her innocence by her own accord.
Thankfully, the brothers have not forgotten this. Started and ended through a voice over by a grown version of that girl, the Coens spend a great deal of time establishing her story and evoking the atmosphere. The fast paced energy pulled from the film for its excellent trailer was indeed misleading, and many will likely be disappointed when they arrive to find a hefty talk-heavy meditation. It’s yet another trick pulled by these film makers and played on an unsuspecting audience (something they’ve never grown tired of.)
Blurring the lines between good and evil has always been a gift of the Coen Brothers, but it has larger play than usual in their take on True Grit. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires drunken Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who is said to have killed her father in cold blood. She goes about this in the most matter-of-fact way that it throws off Cogburn. Demanding to be taken seriously, she spouts off at almost everyone, making them and us forget that she is so young.
Over the course of the film, we see Ross witness the cost her vengeance, and by turn all vengeance, has on the body and soul. It’ll cost you an eye or an arm, and likely your peace of mind. To obtain that “true grit” seen in Cogburn and later in LeBoeuf, a Texas Ranger also after Chaney, she must wear herself down to the bone. To see a smirk come across her face when given the opportunity to take her revenge is to watch, in a few simple cuts, the destruction of childhood innocence.
The outcome of this film is not as important as the journey. For the most part it is Cogburn carrying on, LeBoeuf calling him out, and Ross trying to calm the two down and keeping their eye on the target she can’t quite aim at herself yet. This journey is mostly entertaining, but a few rough patches and the way some of the action sequences are handled hold it back. The extraordinary technique the brothers exemplified in their last Western, No Country for Old Men, would’ve served them just as well here. To pick up that slack, we must turn to the actors.
Bridges returns to the Coens for the first time since The Big Lebowski, and Josh Brolin also returns for his small part as Chaney. All the acting is excellent, even if Bridges is showboating at times. Steinfeld scores a terrific debut performance and Matt Damon does what he can with an under appreciated character. The key chemistry between Cogburn and Ross is right on the money.
The film’s biggest strength is in its visuals, shot by Coen regular Roger Deakins. The many different terrains, from the rocky desert to snow covered rocks and forest, all look gritty and gorgeous. The final stirring shot of a woman leaving a graveyard is beautiful in its simplicity.
True Grit isn’t as good as it could’ve been, but that’s not to say it is without merit. Along with Shutter Island and Inception, this one joins the ranks of films made by fantastic directors this year that didn’t quite live up to their potential. These people all know what they’re doing, and True Grit definitely has its moments of brilliance.
The brothers have taken this adaptation of the novel (they insist on staying away from comparisons to the Wayne outing) as seriously as they took the one of No Country for Old Men. Corrupting a soul is serious business, even when tackled by these not-so-serious men. Wit seeps in, if not as much as grit, and that’s kind of a shame.