After three consecutive films fixated on the absurd cruelty and randomness of life, Joel and Ethan Coen adopt a slightly more heartening perspective with True Grit, which hews surprisingly closely to both Charles Portis’s novel and the 1969 Henry Hathaway-helmed big-screen adaptation that netted John Wayne his only Best Actor Oscar. To be sure, unflinching and remorseless violence and amorality abound in this rugged vision of the Old West. Yet at heart, the Coen brothers’ latest is a straightforward revenge-driven oater in which control and order are achievable, albeit at potentially significant cost.
Guided by the conviction that “You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another,” 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) endeavors to bring her father’s killer, outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), to justice by hiring notorious one-eyed federal Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Thus begins an odyssey that also comes to include the participation of a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who wants to nab Chaney for the murder of a senator. That crime, however, doesn’t concern Mattie, a pistol of a girl whose desire to have Chaney hang for her father’s death practically seethes from her pores, and whose imposing stubbornness is established early on during a business meeting with a horse trader whose attempts to cheat the girl are steamrolled by her logical, unrelenting persistence.
With a force of personality that makes plain her refusal to take any guff from condescending adults (men, always), Mattie emerges as an adolescent female version of Rooster, a grizzled lawman slandered as a ruthless killer, and an eye patch-adorned drunkard initially unwilling to agree to Mattie’s terms that she accompany him on his mission into Indian territory to nab Chaney. Those objections are ignored by Mattie, and soon she, Rooster, and La Boeuf—the latter two at constant odds over, respectively, Rooster’s drinking and homicidal past and La Boeuf’s ineptitude with a firearm—venture into the scraggly, snowy plains, to little success.
The Coens frame much of this initial action in close-ups and medium shots that crowd out the western landscape, frustrating any impression of the characters’ connection to the land. Again working with cinematographer Roger Deakins, the directors’ visuals have a tough, tree-barky texture that’s unshowy and often starkly beautiful, as when Rooster fires a gun into an abandoned mine, his figure silhouetted against the bright blue sky. Such distinctive flourishes, however, are few and far between with regard to aesthetics and narrative, as their film is often most notable not for novel additions but for the way in which it subtly rearranges the chronology of certain plot particulars (a revelation, or conversation) to negligible effect.
Lacking a potent sense of environmental space and its relationship to its inhabitants, True Grit leans on colorful period dialogue and an illustrious cast to imbue the proceedings with significance, a strategy that elicits direct engagement with its trio of protagonists, and yet also calls undue attention to their occasional cartoonishness. Rooster and La Boeuf develop an amusingly combative, if thin, impropriety-vs.-decency rapport, while Mattie and Rooster gradually grow closer thanks to a shared, unspoken understanding that they’re kindred souls. The “old and fat” fogy and young girl are both hard, iconoclastic loners without a place in traditional society, Mattie because she’s a female uninterested in assuming a traditional gender role, and Rooster because he’s indifferent to man’s law, which he expresses through an offhand admission to robbing a bank (because banks are run by thieves), and an annoyed dismissal of courtroom suggestions that he shot a bandit in cold blood. Consequently, when La Boeuf raises the issue of moral distinctions between acts governed by righteousness and those governed by societal mores and rules, he speaks directly to Mattie and Rooster’s worldviews, in which one does what is necessary, and those who recognize that fact possess “true grit.”
If Cogburn is a nasty old buzzard on the outside, he’s a compassionate soul on the inside, as evidenced by his actions toward Mattie during a climax involving Chaney and his desperado boss “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Sporting a scruffy gray beard and black eye patch, Bridges maintains Cogburn’s rough exterior while simultaneously softening him through salty quips and, in one particularly hilarious scene, some swift kicks to the behinds of horse-abusing children. Refusing to indulge in Duke-isms, which means avoiding broad parody, Bridges makes the character his own.
The Coens smartly reinstate the narrative framework of adult Mattie’s hindsight narration that was absent in Hathaway’s film. Predominantly, though, this True Grit distinguishes itself via a supremely confident, nuanced supporting turn by Steinfeld, a comedically competent performance by Damon (light years better than Glen Campbell’s original, unbearable La Boeuf), and a somewhat grimmer tone that extends both to a nocturnal race to safety that plays like a starry-eyed nightmare of love, determination, and death, as well as to a mournful epilogue that further links Mattie, physically and spiritually, to Rooster. Vigorous if not particularly novel or profound, it’s a remake that neither reinvents the genre nor its source material, instead proving content to merely locate the sadness, strength, loneliness, and hope of three strangers briefly united by a common belief in, and desire for, justice.