FILM REVIEW Heroes and villains in True Grit
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld’s Oscar nod is well-deserved
Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper
PG-13, now playing
The latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit is the second adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis about a tough U.S. Marshal helping a stubborn young girl find her father’s murderer. John Wayne starred in the 1969 adaptation as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. True Grit is has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Jeff Bridges). Fifteen-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who was chosen among 15,000 other competitors for the role of Mattie Ross, was nominated in the category Best Supporting Actress.
As an old woman, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) tells the story of her quest to avenge her father’s death. She explains that her father was killed by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a drifter whom he had been supporting. The movie begins in Fort Smith while fourteen-year-old Mattie is arranging the transportation of her father’s body back to his hometown. She decides to hire Deputy Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a trigger-happy, hard-drinking man, in order to help her since she believes in his “grit.” A part of her deal with Cogburn is that he will have to take her with him on the chase for Chaney. Cogburn, of course, does not like this at first, but his need for money and Mattie’s toughness force him to accept her terms.
While Mattie and Cogburn prepare for their trip, a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) arrives at Fort Smith. He is also after Chaney for the murder of a senator and his dog in Texas. Despite their differences in motivation and temperament, Cogburn and LaBoeuf decide to join forces on the hunt. They also decide to leave Mattie behind, but they underestimate her willpower. When she joins them again, they finally accept her as a member of the party. Together, these three very different characters ride into Choctaw territory to bring justice to Chaney.
Although True Grit includes saloons, hard-drinking men, gunfights, and heroic characters facing evil villains, it feels far too authentic to fall into the same category as any conventional John Wayne Western. This stunning authenticity draws the audience right into the events of the story, just like other Coen brother movies (No Country for Old Men). Authentic costumes, language (including accents), realistic set designs, and countless other little details in every scene create a very dense atmosphere.
Thinking back on True Grit, I remember one scene in particular. Mattie and Cogburn find a hanged man in the remote wilderness of a forest. Cogburn sends Mattie up to cut the rope and release the corpse so that the victim may be identified. As I watched her balance on that high branch and cut the rope, I realized that the branch should eventually bend back when the weight is released, giving her a very hard time keeping her balance. Had the Coen brothers overlooked this small detail? In the end, I was not disappointed. Overall, the remarkable web of small details enriches True Grit significantly.
The characters of LaBoeuf and Cogburn represent the classic thrilling dualism between an upright hero and a sleazy anti-hero. Damon and Bridges have excellent performances, but the difficult relationship between these two main characters is significantly spiced up by the appearance of Mattie, an unbelievably tough fourteen-year-old girl who faces these two grown men at eye level. Every single one of these three unique characters show “true grit” during the hunt for Chaney — perhaps Mattie even more than her two adult companions. It is a pleasure to witness how the relationship between the main characters develops. Newcomer Steinfeld did an incredible job, and she clearly deserves the Academy Award nomination.