Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges in Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit
“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” – Mattie Ross, True Grit
In a film bubbling with humor and adventure yet shot through with a bracing melancholy, Joel and Ethan Coen have perfectly captured Charles Portis’ beloved novel True Grit while still making a film uniquely their own. The Coen stamp is subtler than it is with their original creations, but it is readily apparent and most welcome – a perfect fit for the material. Those who are only familiar with their body of work might be surprised to find that they have made a family film, while those who only know the story through the 1969 John Wayne movie might be surprised by the novel’s dark streak. That somber cast remains intact in the film translation and it is this quietly dawning sobriety that elevates True Grit from simple entertainment into something more substantial.
Mattie Ross is a prim, determined young Arkansan with a confidence that belies her 14 years. She has traveled to the frontier outpost of Fort Smith to claim the body of her murdered father and to see his killer Tom Chaney brought to justice. Chaney has fled the jurisdiction of local law enforcement so Mattie turns to the meanest, toughest Deputy US Marshal she can find: a grizzled, big-talking, drunkard named Rooster Cogburn with one eye and two trigger fingers. With the promise of reward, and perhaps because he takes a shine to this spunky little girl, Rooster agrees to track Chaney into dangerous Indian Territory. Making the unlikely pair an even unlikelier trio is La Boeuf, an arrogant young Texas Ranger who has been tracking Chaney himself for the murder of a US senator back home.
The key to True Grit is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld who stars as Mattie and appears in just about every scene. 13 at the time of filming, Steinfeld perfectly registers the innocence befitting Mattie’s age, but also a poise born both of Mattie’s confidence in her own ability and a naivety about the very real dangers she’s in. With an unexpected self-possession that calls to mind a young Jodie Foster, Steinfeld is as convincing riding a horse, shooting a gun or sparring with her elders as she is with her eyes teared up in frustration, sadness or shock at the horrors of the world. There’s a little bit of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson in her. She’s tough and smart, but it’s a hard world outside of her civilized bubble and venturing into that world changes her in fundamental ways. When Mattie says early in the film that you must pay for everything in this world, you assume she’s talking about justice. It turns out though that even justice itself takes its toll and Mattie will pay dearly for it. Though she comes away wiser, she’s also a little bit sadder and she’ll never be quite the same.
With every Coen film, one of the hurdles for the actors is their trademark stylized dialogue. It’s toned down here some and is more reflective of the odd almost biblical formality of the novel’s language than it is the usual Coen flights of linguistic fancy, but it’s still unnatural and it takes a special actor who gets it. Steinfeld is definitely that actor. Delivering her lines rapid fire and without hesitation, she rattles off her dialogue as though it’s normal modern conversation while still allowing the vitality of the music behind the words to shine through. There’s a rhythm and a spare poetry to the conversations and Steinfeld executes her readings with the skill of seasoned professional.
We already know that Jeff Bridges gets Coen-speak based on his iconic performance in The Big Lebowski, but the question on everyone’s mind is whether The Dude can match The Duke as Rooster Cogburn. Rightly or wrongly, this is John Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance and comparisons are inevitable. Well, forget about them. While taking nothing away from Wayne, Jeff Bridges makes Cogburn his own. This is a characterization much closer to Portis and less reliant on a famous actor’s iconic status. In the novel, Cogburn is dirty, sleazy and more than a little disreputable and Bridges wallows gleefully in this human muck. Regarding the world through one blurry, steel gray eye, he’s a broken down mess of a man to whom you would not entrust your child for a trip to the drugstore let alone into Indian Territory, but in him Mattie sees her best chance at finding retribution. It turns out there’s still a fire and a humanity in him and both are rekindled by this tough young girl. In him she finds the retribution she seeks and in her he finds a kind of redemption he didn’t know he needed.
Though Steinfeld and Bridges are terrific on their own, there is also a fantastic chemistry between them. Their characters are complete opposites, yet they need and seem to like each other even as they find the other infuriating. Whether it’s Mattie rolling Cogburn’s cigarette as she might have for her own father or Cogburn taking a stand to protect Mattie from danger, there are lots of little character moments that show their growing bond and it’s not hard to imagine the camaraderie between the characters existing between the actors as well.
Rounding out the main cast is Matt Damon as the cocky Texas Ranger La Boeuf. Damon has already proven through his work in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! and the Ocean’s films that he has a knack for patter and a gift for comedy that makes him a perfect Coen actor. It’s only surprising it has taken him this long to get a role in one of their projects. With a quick temper and an ego to match his oversized spurs, his La Boeuf almost feels like a boy playing at being a cowboy. In a way, he has a lot more in common with Mattie than he’d like to admit. He’s a good shot, but something of a dandy and he naturally clashes with the more worldly Cogburn whose stories may be gilded with exaggeration but are rooted in hard experience. Much of the film’s humor in fact comes from Damon and Bridges whittling each other with an exasperated Mattie caught between them. It is this conflicting trio of personalities ultimately that gives the story its drive and the film lives or dies based on the performances. Steinfeld, Bridges and Damon make True Grit sing.
Technically, True Grit is everything you could expect from the Coens and their crew of familiar faces including cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell. Deakins for the most part is fairly restrained as he works with a muted palette that suits the starkness of the narrative. There’s a hallucinatory nighttime sequence during the climax where he really gets to show his stuff, but mostly his contributions are subtle. Burwell meanwhile perfectly compliments the cinematography and the general tone of the film with a simple score that supports the emotion of each scene without ever forcing it. Though often warmer than they’re given credit for, the Coens are not overly sentimental filmmakers. They never overplay the emotions in True Grit and the contributions of Deakins and Burwell strike just the right note.
The most refreshing thing about True Grit is the Coens’ sincerity with the original material and their willingness to play it straight without ever trying to outsmart it. While a family-friendly western might seem like an odd choice for them, a closer examination fits it perfectly within their canon. This is the work of mature filmmakers who have the confidence they can thrive in any genre wherever they find a good character-based story. They’ve found such a story in True Grit and while they never lose sight of it as straightforward entertainment, they also get at the meat of the original novel in ways the first film version never even attempted. The final result is one of the best movies of 2010.
Also: check out my interview with Joel and Ethan Coen over at Awards Daily.
True Grit. USA 2010. Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen from the novel by Charles Portis. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Music score composed by Carter Burwell. Edited by Joel and Ethan Coen (as Roderick Jaynes). Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. 1 hour 50 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images. 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Barry Pepper, Carter Burwell, Charles Portis, Ethan Coen, Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Joel Coen, Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, Roderick Jaynes, Roger Deakins, The Coen Brothers, True Grit