True Grit is a Western, but not quite as we know it. For starters, the hero is a fourteen-year-old girl with a very intimate knowledge of the bible. Young Mattie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld) has read the good book and knows how to use it. As she puts it, “There is nothing free except the grace of God.” Eccentric, single-minded, and at odds with the world, Mattie is a perfect Coen brothers heroine.
The Coen Brothers, you either love em or you are a bit odd. It’s true they have made some less good films, but their successes have shone so brightly that we can forgive them the odd fumble. Besides, an off day for Joel and Ethan probably has more to chew over than most Hollywood fare. Will Self writes in The Guardian that their movies are so likeable, resistance is difficult. Most of us look forward to an acclaimed Coen brothers movie.
This film has generally had lots of positive press and was nominated for 10 Oscars. They didn’t win any, but that could be because Hailee Steinfeld was nominated for Actress in Supporting Role and Jeff Bridges was nominated for Actor in Leading Role. Although Steinfield’s Mattie Ross employs the support of Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn in her endeavour to hunt down her father’s killers, hers is certainly not a supporting role. It would have been a shame to give her such an Oscar for a film in which she is central.
In firmly laced pony tails and felt hat crammed on her head, Steinfeld embodies a steely heroine with an almost Jane Austen-like priggishness. Her father has been shot dead by a villainous farm hand while travelling to a buy ponies. Now, as well as finishing up her fathers affairs, which involves some amusing bargaining with a horse dealer, Mattie Ross wants to track down her father’s killer. The murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has fled from Arkansas into the wilds of Indian territory – set in 1872, this was an area not ruled by the laws of the United States.
In order to bring Cheney to justice, Ross needs help. This comes in the form of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a US marshal who possesses both the authority and experience to capture an outlaw in a lawless land. If you’re more familiar with Bridges as The Dude, this is a completely different transformation. True, he has a penchant for a tipple, is somewhat ornery and dishevelled, but this character is believably violent, stubborn and not entirely likeable. Ross hires Cogburn, someone with ‘true grit’, to track down her man.
Rooster rides with Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef), a charming but slightly drippy Texas Ranger, also after Chaney, and Mattie Ross in tow. Crossing the river into Indian territory, they leave behind the laws of civilisation and reason – the film takes on a somewhat fable-like quality.
From the beginning the film is enlivened by the Coens’ love of curious detail. From the last words spoken by men before they are hung and Cogburn’s performance in court before they set out, to the man roaming about in a bear pelt and a hilarious shooting competition between Cogburn and LaBoeuf, the film is built from marvellous little scenes.
You might think that this True Grit is a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film. Not so, say the Coens, who maintain that they sought to make a new adaptation of the 1968 book by Charles Portis. It is a book that American author and script writer and producer for The Wire, George Pelecanos has called, “one of the very best American novels“. The film certainly contains some fairly unusual language for a movie. “It astonishes me that Mr. LaBoeuf has been shot, trampled, and nearly bitten his tongue off, and yet not only does he continue to talk but he spills the banks of English”, being an example of the great, authentically Victorian dialogue. The only trouble is that Jeff Bridges’ Cogburn often sounds like he has one of his holey old socks in his mouth and is sometimes quite difficult to hear.
The Coens are also quoted in The Guardian as saying that rather than setting out to make a Western, they just wanted to make “a story set in Arkansas in 1872.” Whether the film they ended up making is a Western or just one that happens to be set in the appropriate time and place (a non-Western?), it is definitely made by two of the most distinctive voices in cinema today.