By Don Simpson | December 25, 2010
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writer(s): Joel Coen (screenplay), Ethan Coen (screenplay), Charles Portis (novel)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews
Mattie’s (Hailee Steinfeld) father has just been killed in cold blood and she has come to Fort Smith, Arkansas to collect his body, but she has an ulterior motive here as well — to find someone with enough true grit to track down and kill her father’s murderer. Mattie approaches the only dude in town with quantifiable grit — U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) — as he is taking a shit. Needless to say, Rooster is not up to listening to a nagging young lass at this particular juncture in time. But the 14-year-old Mattie is relentless, and after stalking Rooster for a while, the gritty and grizzly old one-eyed dude abides.
Unfortunately for Rooster, part of the deal is that Mattie travel along with him to make sure the dirty deed is done. And Mattie is not the only tag-a-long; as fate would have it, a Texas Ranger who goes by the name LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) — pronounced as le beef — is also on the trail of the very same dastardly villain — Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).
As with so many other films that spend their first act establishing a team to complete a mission, True Grit starts off relatively slow and conventionally. (Several critics are touting True Grit as Joel and Ethan Coens’ most conventional film to date.) Once the unlikely threesome hits the road, the situations and dialogue delve into a brief bout of absurdity — for me, this is where True Grit climaxes. (I honestly could not stop laughing during the scene which starts when Mattie and Rooster discover a dead man hanging exaggeratedly high in a tree and features Ed Corbin as the Bear Man.) But then, once the trio tracks down Tom Chaney, the narrative slides right back into the realm of more traditional conventions.
The back and forth between formalism and lunacy lends True Grit an off-kilter and herky-jerky rhythm. I did not care for the first act — except for the negotiations between Mattie and Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews). Then, in the final act, the inevitable showdown with Tom Chaney is an amazing letdown, as are other scenes that should be tense (such as when Mattie falls down a deep hole) and/or emotional (such as when Rooster carries the snake-bitten Mattie away) fly by way too quickly to have any impact at all. It is the middle of the film that reveals the Coens at their comedic finest since The Big Lebowski. For better or worse, the Coens clearly restrain (or strain) themselves in a concerted effort to make a somewhat straight genre piece: the classic American western.
As with many films by Joel and Ethan Coen, I do take issue with their representation of the “other” in True Grit — in this case, Native Americans and black people. The manner in which the Condemned Indian (Jonathan Joss) is executed and Rooster’s treatment of the Indian Youth at Bagby’s (Brandon Sanderson and Ruben Nakai Campana) seems to be eth[n]ically backwards attempts at humor, yet the scene that made me most uncomfortable is when Mattie tells the young black Stableboy (Orlando Smart) that she is going to name her new pony “Blackie.” That said — I do understand that this is very consistent with the genre and the time period, but the Coens could have handled these three scenes with a little more care and consideration.
And I understand that to condemn the Coens for their humorous depiction of violence is absolutely pointless since that is essentially their shtick. Nonetheless, my main problem with True Grit — which is one of their least violent films, by the way — is their portrayal of violence as the ultimate solution, and a just solution at that. Mattie is given the choice of a few U.S. Marshalls — each would each handle their capture of Tom Chaney differently — and she opts for the most ruthless and brutal of the bunch (to stress the point, we are informed by Rooster himself via a courtroom testimony that he has killed so many people that he has lost count). Again, I do understand that this is very consistent with the genre and the time period (True Grit takes place in the eye for an eye world of the Wild West); that does not mean that this is not a bitter pill for me to swallow. The Coens were obviously attempting to remain faithful to the Western genre, but I would prefer a more postmodern retelling, one that comments on the faults of the genre. What I enjoy most about True Grit is when the Coens opt to focus on Mattie’s growing disapproval of the senseless masculine violence surrounding her. I only wish there was more of that.
True Grit, in keeping true to the tone and purpose of the source novel by Charles Portisis, is told from the perspective of a 40-year-old Mattie (Elizabeth Marvel) who functions as the story’s narrator — whether this perspective, in which gaps in Mattie’s memory might be filled with fictionalized events purely for dramatic effect, explains the exaggerated nature of some of the scenes and the characters’ penchant for speaking in flowery and obtuse rhetoric is up for interpretation (this might also explain the Biblical quality of some of scenes).
In a year of amazing female leads, Steinfeld’s cinematic debut is equally astounding; she even matches her seasoned screen mates (Bridges and Damon) who also find themselves in top form. This is one of Bridges’ best performances to date (right up there with The Big Lebowski) and Damon lends a subtle yet incredibly humorous supporting performance (one that is on par with The Informant!). The high caliber performances in True Grit have been shamefully overlooked in most of the award nominations so far, but we will just have to see if the Academy Awards will come around to recognizing Steinfeld, Bridges or Damon with Oscar nominations.