Dir: Ethan and Joel Coen
True Grit may not be the most immersive Western of the year- that honor goes to Red Dead Redemption– but it is a fun film, definitely the lightest movie made by the Coen Brothers since The Ladykillers (2004). Based on the novel by Charles Portis and already made into a film starring John Wayne in 1969, True Grit is in no way revelatory, but it is still a strong entry in a body of work that features some of the most indelible characters and situations of the last 25 years.
The Coen Brothers have always been fascinated with the rhythms of language, from the distinctive Southwestisms of Raising Arizona to the rapid fire barbs of the Katharine Hepburn comedies emulated in The Hudsucker Proxy. Repetition is important in the cadence, a hallmark of Coen dialogue from hating the Eagles to not counting the mezzanine. In True Grit, the Coens give the best lines to newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who plays 14-year-old Mattie Ross. In the prologue, Mattie explains that her father was murdered in cold blood by the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and that she intends to bring him to justice. To do the deed she hires the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and teams up with Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon, along for comic relief), who is also looking to collar Chaney for murdering a Texas senator.
Although Mattie’s determination- and eerie maturity- are tough to swallow at first, the film finds its stride when the threesome set off into Indian territory to find Chaney. Cogburn is an aging drunk, an unrepentant murderer who is only interested in money. Bridges does an admirable turn in the only role that snagged the Duke an Oscar, but it’s not a far cry from his Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, the grizzled alcoholic who must redeem himself.
True Grit may be peppered with gunplay, but it’s that dialogue that really makes the film worthwhile. While Damon and Bridges establish a witty rapport about the Texas Rangers and right vs. wrong, the relationship between Mattie and Cogburn is the main focus here. At first adversarial, neither character realizes how similar they are until a snakebite threatens to end the relationship prematurely. So what is “true grit?” According to Mattie, it’s the ability to do anything to survive or finish a job, morality aside. La Boeuf may be the film’s moral center, but halfway through the film he nearly bites off his tongue, leaving what it is moral in the hands (or mouth) of a man who can barely string together a sentence.
True Grit is not an essential Western, nor is it a particularly important entry in the Coen canon. However, like most of the Coen’s films, I believe time will be kind to True Grit, adding nuance and unnoticed joys as the years progress. While it is impossible to tell if Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn will ever be as beloved as his Jeff Lebowski, there is still room to add him, Mattie and La Boeuf to a pantheon of characters that features the likes of Marge Gunderson, H.I. McDunnough and Barton Fink. That’s a quite an achievement.