The Coen’s True Grit is reportedly a more faithful adaptation to the Charles Portis novel than the 1969 movie baring the same name. Having not read the novel nor seen the original film (refrain from stoning me until I complete the review, please), I had no idea of whose words, smothered in thick accents and drawls, I was hearing coming from the characters, Portis’ or the Coen’s. It was entertaining nonetheless.
The main character Mattie Ross narrates the film telling of the time when she sought a lawman to hunt down her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney. Mattie has gumption beyond her fourteen years as she strong-arms a store owner out of money she feels she is due. She also has determination to hire the shrewdest marshal around, Rooster Cogburn who is also a heavy-drinking, one-eyed dubious fellow to boot. Along for the journey is LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger also on the trail of Chaney for other misdeeds he has committed. Chaney is MIA for a large part of the movie, something possibly carried over from the source material. He is a man that is both dim-witted and ruthlessly cruel but this isn’t a cat and mouse thriller or in hot pursuit type of move.
While exacting revenge on Chaney sets up the story, this is more of a dramatic character study between three wildly different people united for a common goal. LaBoeuf and Cogburn have ill will toward the other in a sometimes professional rivalry and neither particularly care to have a young girl tagging along for the ride. With her dogged determination, Mattie though is able to keep the two men on the hunt when the trail grows cold after a deadly encounter with the gang that Chaney has taken to.
John Wayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of Cogburn in the 1969 movie. With any luck, Jeff Bridges will also get the honor for the same character. He almost literally melts away into his portrayal of the Marshal erasing any notion that you are actually watching Jeff Bridges playing a character. Cogburn is at times a hard-ass, others just a drunk ass, and still he manages to come around to the point of defending Mattie when she needs it. Matt Damon as LaBoeuf is not quite as commanding as Bridges but still turns in a very solid performance. Josh Brolin is limited on screen but he is able to turn from dim-witted to dangerous in a blink of an eye as was foretold earlier in the film.
The real show stopper though is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. She is not only able to hold her own against the other fairly renowned actors but also adds a bit of levity in the situation such as when she reminisces about her father taking her on coon hunts with a faint, warm smile. All of the leads and most of the lesser cast are able to successfully pull off the odd combination of rapid dialogue wrapped in leisurely Old West trappings but those that don’t only stand out that much more.
Longtime Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins as DP is able to show the untamed frontier in beautiful imagery that does not feel as if it is plucked from a nature documentary. Carter Burwell also unsurprisingly provides the background music that fits perfectly whether its the plucky, old-timey sounds while in town to the sweeping symphonies while on horseback in the wild. Unlike many of the Coen’s movies, there is mostly a lack of quirky comic relief save for one or two fellows who jarringly pop up such as the odd man in the bearskin or one of Lucky Ned’s gang members who is like the Michael Winslow of that time. For it being 98% a straight-forward movie, the inclusion of those two characters baffled me.
Much buzz has been around the Coen’s latest work and this movie is a prime example of why they keep getting the big nominations time and time again. Add in the strong performances and you have a movie that is surely worth seeing.