True Grit (2010)
“True Grit” is a film to feature a drunken, tough-as-nails bounty hunter, a group if filthy criminals, and a stalwart and cocksure Texas Ranger, but the character with the most resolve and strength turns out to be a 14-year-old girl. “True Grit” was also written and directed by the consistently offbeat Coen Bros., best known for their loopy brand of cheery misanthropy, and their love of inwardly obsessed criminal types with an energetic hubris. What’s more, as most of you may acknowledge, “True Grit” was based on a novel by Charles Portis, and was previous adapted to film in 1969, with an aging John Wayne in the role of the bounty hunter. On paper, this is a strangely offbeat and daring project.
Also, the dialogue in this film does occasionally dip into extreme affect. When our young heroine shows a good deal of gall, a fellow remarks, “I admire your sand!” Cute little idiomatic phrases like this crop up from time to time.
Odd, then, that this new “True Grit” feels so exhilaratingly traditional. The Coen Bros., despite the unusual power structure, offbeat dialogue, and general mindfudgery that comes from such notoriously iconoclastic directors remaking a John Wayne film, seem to have dispensed with all their usual quirkiness, and made what can be considered their most straightforward Hollywood adventure film. “True Grit” is exciting, moving, and has a bloody-minded singleness to its story that sweeps you up in the violent fun of it all, rather than inviting comparison to existing westerns.
Most westerns released over the last decade, whether they are or not, are often called “revisionist” westerns, or are accused by critics of deconstructing the genre, and exploding the old myths. “True Grit” is not a revision, nor does it explode myths. It is a legitimately exciting and well-made adventure film, and features some rather excellent performances from its hard-working cast.
Best of the cast was Hailee Steinfeld as the film’s heroine Mattie Ross. Mattie’s father was arbitrarily gunned down by a filthy nogoodnik named Tom Cheney, and Mattie has taken on a resolute quest to avenge her father’s death. She is a smart girl who knows how the world of adults works, and who is not so much wounded as she is insulted that her father was murdered. She believes in justice to the core of her being, be it proper court justice or vigilante justice. She hires the best man for the job, a grizzled, one-eyed alcoholic named “Rooster” Cogburn, a man she hears has true grit.
Cogburn is played by Jeff Bridges as a man who is constantly teetering between scary alcoholic oblivion, and stalwart, unshakable tenacity. One of the first times we see Cogburn, he’s napping, drunk, in the back of a Chinese grocery. He rolls his own cigarettes and stumbles through the halls of the local courthouse where he outright lies to defense attorneys. We begin to question Mattie’s decision in hiring him. Once he’s up on a horse, though, Rooster becomes a bloodhound, and we actually begin to have faith in his abilities, alcoholism or no.
Also along for the ride is a handsome asshole Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), who admits that he wants to make out with young Mattie, and claims – perhaps rightly – that he is a better tracker and a better shot than Cogburn. The film follows these three as they go through the machinations of the hunt. There are no distractions. There are no asides. There is just the bloody-minded chase. Some people get injured. Some leads run cold. Eventually, though, there is a confrontation with Cheney (an appropriately sniveling Josh Brolin), and the gang he’s fallen in with, led by a surprisingly scary and strikingly good Barry Pepper.
Like Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” “True Grit” may fall under the purview of the directors’ interests, but feels safe and typical when compared to some of the more out-there attempts made by them in the past. In the case of “True Grit,” this is no bad thing. The Coens know how to construct a thriller, and, rather than ding any riffing (which could be considered either cynical or creative, depending on the execution, and on whom you ask), did the best thriller they could. As it turns out, their best is really dang good.