True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel has all the trimmings you’d expect from a film by these brothers extraordinaire. Impeccably produced, this revenge story set in the Old West has the gorgeous, meticulously crafted design and imagery as well as the offbeat tone and deadpan humor of a trademark Coen Brothers outing. Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon contribute to a gallery of excellent performances, all by turns eccentric and poignant as True Grit — which begins as a straight-ahead story about a bounty hunt — becomes an affecting saga about loyalty, friendship and redemption.
Resourceful, headstrong 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) enlists the drunken loose-cannon Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to find and retrieve Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the outlaw who murdered her father. As part of the deal, Mattie insists on going along on the manhunt through difficult, unfriendly territory. Along the way, Cogburn and Mattie forge an uneasy alliance with LaBoeuf (Damon), a duty-bound Texas Ranger who’s on his own quest to bring in Chaney for another crime.
This is the barebones storyline of True Grit, and, as it is, the story is about as close to a Western programmer as they come — the standard B-movie fodder they used to crank out in the genre’s heyday. But, in the hands of the Coens, True Grit becomes a deeply immersive experience thanks to its exactingly rendered sense of time and place.
Credit the Coens’ costume and production design teams for evoking an authentic sense of life as lived in the Old West in the late 19th century. This is naturalism stylized through the prism of the Coen Brothers, meaning that characters speak in a kind of mash-up of low- and high-brow patois, so that what we find are eccentric versions of realistic characters, each of them gussied up by the Coens’ fondness for quirky idioms and mannerisms.
There’s no doubting the authenticity of Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography however: As with all of the Coen Brothers’ films, True Grit is an example of Hollywood visual artistry at its finest. The film’s aesthetic is a result of the dazzling combination of Deakins’ camerawork with the topnotch talents of Production Designer Jess Gonchor, Art Directors Stefan Dechant and Christina Ann Wilson and Costume Designer Mary Zophres.
All the roles are theatrically juicy, beginning with Bridges’ one-eyed, hard-bitten Marshall Cogburn. In a way, Bridges is channeling the shambling antics of The Dude from the Coens’ The Big Lebowski via the pathetic drunkenness of his Oscar-winning turn as Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. He wears the role like a comfortable old coat, and seems to be having an absolute blast strutting his stuff here. Damon takes a more straight-laced role as the uptight LaBoeuf, but it’s a committed performance seasoned with ripe dialogue. Likewise, Brolin as Chaney and co-star Barry Pepper, as the leader of Chaney’s gang, sink their conspicuously dingy teeth into their bad-guy parts. Pulling out the rug from under all of them, though, Steinfeld who, from the get-go, is the film’s emotional and moral anchor. The actress’ presence on-screen is as assured and compelling as the character she plays, and her tough, no-nosense Mattie can hold her own in a story packed with alpha males.
For all its craftsmanship and flamboyant turns, True Grit resonates when it’s dealing with Mattie’s evolving relationship with the self-loathing Cogburn, a deadbeat father and a casualty of multiple bad marriages. In Cogburn’s climactic flight to save Mattie, what transpires is the man’s last-ditch attempt to be the friend and father he’s yet failed to be in life. Thematically, this is predictable ground, but in Bridges and Steinfeld’s hands, it’s elevated to the level of poetic drama. The Coens’ also layer haunting notes of mortality, moral anarchy and hostility in a lawless environment that all work to deepen our involvement in Mattie’s odyssey.
True Grit isn’t among the Coens’ most satisfying creations (Fargo is still far and way their masterpiece on all fronts), though it is one of their most solidly accomplished films. This is a tough, stylish re-imaginging of the Western, beautifully crafted and performed, with a disciplined, unwavering pace and a mastery in how it earns viewer sympathies. The Coens stay within the modest bounds of the script and keep to the story’s modest thematic ambitions. That very modesty in the material is both True Grit’s limitation and its saving grace — the film never pretends to be something it can’t be, never reaches for a grandiosity it can’t support. That quality, ultimately, is what endears True Grit to generations of fans — of the Western and of the Coen Brothers.
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Paul Rae, Domhnall Gleeson