It is quite possible that True Grit is the most heartwarming film the Coen Brothers have ever written, directed, and produced. And I’m still not quite sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. At its most basic, the film’s themes are Hollywood standards we’ve seen before and will see again: A young girl needs to prove herself amongst older, wiser men. An old curmudgeon and the too-smart-for-her-own-good tween learn to respect each other over the course of a dangerous adventure. And it’s all set to a schmaltzy score.
But that’s until a guy gets his fingers chopped off and another dude gets shot in the head, in that quietly graphic way the brothers have perfected. While the film may be adapted from a 1968 novel — written by Charles Portis and made into a feature a year later with John Wayne and Glen Campbell — it still retains enough of that Coen charm (and violence) that we’ve all grown to love.
At the start of True Grit, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has made her way to Fort Smith, Ark., to claim the body of her father, shot dead by drifter Tom Chaney. She’s also there to settle his affairs, which for her mainly means hunting Chaney down and bringing him back to town for a proper punishment. Mattie is pissed and wants Chaney to pay for what he done did, and in order to do so, she must travel into Choctaw territory, where it is believed that Chaney has banded with the gang of “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Mattie turns down an offer of help from the pipe-smoking, spur-wearing Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who wants to take Chaney back to the Lone Star State for a hefty reward. Instead, she enlists Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a cranky ole one-eyed fusspot of a U.S. marshal who spends most of the film drunk on “confiscated” whiskey. The three eventually band together, and we’re treated to luscious shots of expansive deserts, snowy forests, and star-filled skies as they misadventure their way through the landscape on Chaney’s trail.
Precocious is too weak a word to describe Mattie. She’s smarter than everyone else in the film, literate and holding her own when bartering with much older men. She heads off on her journey dressed in her dad’s leftover clothing, wearing his hat and an oversized jacket kept tight by a belt wrapped twice around her tiny waist, and carrying his gun. Though Mattie is decades younger than her companions, or anyone else they meet along the way, she comes off as the only adult in the entire film. She tries to calmly mediate between the squabbling Cogburn and LaBoeuf, bickering about who served where in what war, who has the better shot, and so on and so forth. And when we finally meet Tom Chaney, despite his violent tendencies, he’s pitifully childlike.
Coen Brothers’ films are known for their quirks, and it’s harder to create eccentricities when you’re adapting someone else’s work. Still, they manage to fill the supporting cast with priceless, awkward faces, filthy and hairy and filled with rotting teeth. And their dry humor appears at even the most intense moments. The characters, whether on the good side or the bad side of the law, are likeable despite their flaws, though some of the most intriguing (Ned Pepper in particular) are the most undeveloped and have the least amount of screen time.
When it comes to True Grit, it’s safe to say the Coen Brothers are victims of inaccurate marketing. The trailers for Burn After Reading, their first original work after No Country for Old Men, made the film look like a jolly good time, when it was actually quite dark and violent. Meanwhile, the previews of True Grit were composed with a sort of cowboy gothic that never really comes across in the finished product. This work is nowhere near as creepy as No Country, a story haunted throughout by Javier Bardem’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of the ominous Chigurh; as True Grit‘s antagonist, Brolin shows up for maybe five full minutes. Still, there’s a proper balance of action and farce, and there are no failures in acting, with Bridges mumbling his way through the role and a somewhat goofy Damon left lisping after an unfortunate tongue injury. Just don’t expect it to sweep the 2011 Oscars.
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