With True Grit, the Coen brothers return to the western and it is a skillfully crafted journey filled with endlessly engaging characters.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a 14-year-old girl that arrives in town to settle her father’s affairs after he was shot and killed by a man under his employ, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). However, Mattie has more in mind than bringing her father’s body home and selling off his ponies: she plans to see her father’s murderer brought to justice. In order to insure this she hires the most ruthless US Marshall she can find, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). But there is another man on the trail of Chaney, a Texas Ranger named LeBeouf (Matt Damon). Mattie insists on being brought along and the three of them form a tenuous alliance as they pursue Tom Chaney into the wilderness of Arkansas.
The first thing to note is that this is a western. It has all of the hallmarks of that genre. There are lawmen pursuing outlaws. There is a vast wilderness the characters must journey through. There is the idea of vigilante justice and an eye for an eye. But all of these ideas are played upon by the Coens, putting interesting twists on each.
For instance, it is questionable how capable the lawmen are for the task at hand. Cogburn is a drunk that takes to firing his gun as a catch all solution. LeBeouf is a noble man but seems to lack any true experience in confronting outlaws. He seems a little too educated for the task of hunting violent men. The outlaws, too, are not what is normally expected. They are not evil, but men struggling to survive in the world they have found themselves in. Mattie is also not what one expects when they lay their eyes on the teenaged girl in braids. She is smart, stubborn, fearless, and has a razor sharp tongue. In essence, what is so surprising about these characters is that they feel very flawed, that is to say, they feel very human. And not just the main characters. The characters we meet for only a scene feel like fully realized individuals also, which is an impressive feat of writing and acting.
The wilderness that these characters must battle is a wilderness that is vast and unforgiving, but is not the desert typically associated with the genre. Instead of never ending sand, Mattie, Cogburn, and LaBeouf must journey through thick forests, wide open prairies, and rocky mountains. Instead of unforgiving sun, they must contend with the freezing cold of winter. The environment is a very interesting component to the story as the continual change of it shows what a long journey this is, as well as how important it is know where you are going, for this is a land that can swallow a person without a second thought. Also to be noted is not only how deadly this landscape is but how beautiful. Master cinematographer Rodger Deakins photographs this film so that even at its darkest, at its most foreboding, at its most deadly, it is still beautiful.
Revenge is the driving factor of the film, which is a common idea in westerns. Mattie believes that everyone pays for what they do. She is determined to see Chaney dead, but for LeBeouf and Cogburn it is a matter of business. The difference between a typical western and this film is that True Grit doesn’t paint revenge as a glorious solution and triumphant end to the journey. Mattie is determined to seek her retribution but, capable as she is, she doesn’t understand the true extent of that. When she does come face to face with Chaney, it is hard to see him as the villain she has imagined him to be. He is just a man. And she, too, will have to pay for her actions.
Mattie Ross is played by a young actress named Hailee Steinfeld. This is her first major role and this is a powerhouse of a performance. Famously, the Coen brothers auditioned over fifty thousand girls before they found Steinfeld. Lucky for us they did. She is marvelous on screen, which she is for nearly every second of this film, stealing every scene from impressive actors like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. The skill she exhibits would be impressive in an actor twice her age with years of experience. She manages to take the language of the 1800s and make it sound like her own. Never once do you question that this girl talks like that. Rarely, is there talk of oscar nominations for an actress this young, but with a performance this good, it would be a crime if this 14-year-old wasn’t nominated.
Jeff Bridges as Cogburn and Matt Damon as LaBeouf are great but, as hard as it may be to believe, have a hard time keeping up with Steinfeld’s Mattie. What they bring to the film is a great sense of humor. Their characters are given the weight of levity and they manage to pull that off with great success. These characters make the film surprisingly funny and it is clear in their performances that they had great fun playing these characters. The notable standout to the supporting men in my opinion was Josh Brolin. As Tom Chaney, Brolin is weak and lacks confidence, which is the exact opposite of the character he played in the Coens’ No Country for Old Men. It’s a performance that shows off Brolin’s range as an actor as it is something we haven’t seen him do before.
Carter Burwell’s score can only be described as moving. Based upon old hymns, it makes the characters’ quest feel like a noble one but also asks the question of how noble is it. Perhaps retribution is best left in the hands of God. It is important to note that the film ends with “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a hymn that takes joy in mercy and grace. Mostly however, the score feels like a moment to breathe. When the music takes over, it feels like it is a time to reflect, which is rare. This score isn’t trying to tell the story to you, rather it is giving you the time to feel the story for yourself.
My one complaint is in the last five minutes of the film. The Coens are usually very tight editors, never keeping in an extraneous scene. But this film has an epilogue that answers a series of questions that I didn’t think needed to be asked, let alone answered. The only reason I can think of for its inclusion is the necessity to show the aftermath of the characters’ actions. To show that what Mattie believes is true: everyone pays for what they do. Which I believe the film has already demonstrated before the inclusion of this epilogue.
True Grit is a film that takes the western and digs deeper, exploring the themes that most westerns seem to fleetingly deal with, if at all, and doing so with a healthy amount of humor. It is a wonderfully crafted film in every respect. In the end, the Coen brothers’ film is one that seems to ask, “What is true grit?” Is it the ruthlessness it takes to kill a man or the compassion it takes to save one?