REVIEW: True Grit [2010]

“A saucy line will not get you very far with me”

The Coen Brothers have been on such a roll the past four years. While they’ve gone serious for the most part, the trademark wit has not disappeared from the dramatic entries to their oeuvre. Still able to hit the funny bone full bore—see Burn After Reading—the comedies have gone subtler with a more dire tone, (A Serious Man), and the dramas have gone grimmer themselves, right into consistent Oscar contention, (No Country for Old Men). Going back to Charles Portis’s novel for an updated adaptation, they are seeking the latter accolades once more with True Grit. I don’t mean that as though they are choosing material with an end game in mind, they just happen to have found their niche by toning down the humor and showcasing the immense talent they’ve honed over the past quarter century. Their western is a perfect example of a keen eye for authenticity, the ability to cultivate long-lasting relationships with their actors, and to show how deliberate pacing does not automatically equate with boring.

There is something to an era where a gunshot isn’t a death sentence. Bullets fly and lodge in limbs, but, unless it hits a major artery or slices through the brain, the victim generally has time to either find help or fight through it for however long it takes. Accuracy on a pistol becomes an artform in this context; every shot made by the human eye and a feel for elements involved alone. This is what makes the west so appealing for audience members—it’s a man’s world of law, duels, arrogance, and skill. The bad guys have just as good a chance of getting away with murder as the good guys have of finding them. If a criminal is skilled enough, he can be invincible, having no clear disadvantage technologically than his pursuers. It therefore takes mettle and fortitude—and ‘true grit’ as they say—to keep on the trail, as well as financially significant support to maintain a strong desire. When sheriffs are letting killers run loose as long as they exit their jurisdiction, law enforcement becomes a private affair built upon reward money from the families of victims. The hunt for justice only goes so far, though, a guaranteed hundred-dollar payday is a bit more appetizing.

The man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) is just such a lucky gent—skillful enough to do his deeds, quick enough to escape the authorities, and cunning enough to find refuge with whatever gang is near for protection. Long gone into Indian country after murdering a man, only the deceased’s daughter Mattie gives a damn to search for retribution and never take no for an answer. With a mother too uneducated to handle the family’s affairs and two young siblings unable physically or mentally to help, it is the headstrong and silver-tongued 14-year old, (just ask Dakin Matthews’s Col. Stonehill, a very welcome bit of comic relief in his frustration due to her tireless negotiating), who culls together the surprisingly effective duo ultimately agreeing to a bounty for the chase. Appearances are deceiving all around as the men find Mattie Ross, (a poised and effective turn from feature film newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), an ornery child in need of discipline and a reality check while she believes Marshall Cogburn and Ranger LaBoeuf are egotistical lawmen obviously over-compensating in stories to gloss over past kills and failures respectively. The threesome soon find none have quit in their bodies—despite words spoken while drunk—and through a little luck could actually come up with the prize.

It is Jeff Bridges’s Rooster Cogburn who takes top billing on the poster and in personality, however. An ex-con turned lawman so as to legally kill people, his one-eyed codger may enjoy the whiskey and only perform for cash advances, but is also very much still the take-no-flack crack shot he believes he is. A man with experience and contacts in Indian country—his penchant for kicking native girls off a store’s patio belies his feelings towards them—he finally lets Mattie talk him into the job if only to quiet her, not because he has confidence in finding a man either long gone or dead. It is Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf who holds the knowledge of the prey, tracking this man with multiple identities after killing a Texas senator. His substantial reward promise is also a large reason Cogburn agrees, but the two have their ups and downs with conflictingly similar personalities. One could say it is their slowly building relationship with the plain, tomboy girl by their side—the script takes very strong shots at her looks—that gets them to turn a corner. They see her determination, smarts, and maturity eclipsing their own supposed professionalism. Much like Chaney won’t like the prospect of being shot by a girl, the other two don’t want to be out-‘manned’ by one either.

Gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins and scored with an old fashioned western melody from Carter Burwell, you truly get a sense of a bygone era with all the dirt to claim it. Accents are rough, (Bridges can be somewhat unintelligible with his twanged growl), teeth are ripe for Bear Man Ed Corbin’s dental tools, (Barry Pepper’s Lucky Ned a Gingivitis outbreak’s dream), and injuries are severe, debilitating, and realistic. There isn’t much violence to go around as much of the film deals with the chase and the leads’ relationships with one another, but, when it happens, you’ll feel it. True Grit has an air about it recalling classics of the past and an aesthetic to showcase the present’s masterful artists. It’s slow moving, but never tedious, and succeeds more in the subtle nuance of its actors and script than the actual activity of vengeance. The capture of Brolin’s dimwitted Chaney may be the impetus of the entire plot, but once everyone comes face to face, the dynamic of what has been building changes drastically as bullets mean much less than the compassionate teamwork cultivated.

The film ultimately ends up being a short period of time that indelibly shaped the life of a young girl. She narrates and her character takes point throughout, fearless in her blind quest, proving to have the grit necessary to will the men by her side into realizing they own faltering potential. Cogburn, LaBoeuf, and Ross embark on a mission forever binding them together, but in keeping with the western creed of independence, the connection formed doesn’t need to be labeled by words. A simple handshake and a caring, watchful eye speak volumes.

True Grit 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Left to right: Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross and Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in Paramount Pictures’ “True Grit.” Photo credit: Lorey Sebastian – © 2010 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Matt Damon plays LaBeouf in Paramount Pictures’ “True Grit.” Photo credit: Wilson Webb – © 2010 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned in Paramount Pictures’ True Grit (2010)

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