True Grit is one of those movies that does everything so well, that you hardly notice that it is doing it. The best way to describe this film is to say that it is smooth. From start to finish there is a definite sense of purpose to every shot and every piece of dialogue, and things just click. The Coen Brothers are at their finest with True Grit, and they are helped by some of the best performances of the year by the stars and supporting cast.
There is no fat on this film. Multiple characters are introduced–some for no more than a few minutes–and yet they are memorable and handled by talented actors who understand what the Coens are looking for, and they deliver. Many people have already criticized this film without seeing it, because the original 1969 John Wayne version is considered a classic. While purists may never be convinced that a remake was in order, this True Grit is not like the original. In fact it is not like any other movie this year. It is arguably the best western made in at least the last decade, and it stands among the best Westerns of all time—it is that good. The year is packed with Oscar contenders, and while True Grit may or may not win that honor, it certainly deserves a place in the discussion, as do the majority of those involved.
The Coens can be something of an acquired taste. They do not make movies that are meant for the popcorn crowd, and for as many fans as they win, they tend to alienate others. But of all the films Joel and Ethan Coen have made, True Grit may be the most complete. No Country For Old Men won them an Oscar in 2007, but True Grit may be their best film yet.
The story, retold for a new generation
True Grit is the story of 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of a man murdered by one of his hired hands, Tom Chaney. The rest of Mattie’s family is either too young or not willing to handle dealing with her father’s affairs, so it falls to her. As she heads to Fort Smith, Arkansas, Mattie wants revenge for her father’s death, and she wants Chaney brought back to hang. The local sheriff explains that her best choice would be to offer a reward, and she is given three choices of marshal’s to approach. She chooses the meanest of the three, U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, a man said to have “true grit”.
Despite being a 14-year old girl in a hard world, Mattie is more than capable of handling herself–whether it is dealing with crooked businessmen, or Texas Rangers treating her like a child. She soon convinces Cogburn to pursue Chaney, but with one condition—she wants to come with him. He protests, but she will not be refused, and soon the two are joined by Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who is also after Chaney for a murder in Texas. Mattie had originally refused La Boeuf’s help, but the promise of a reward in Texas was large enough to convince Cogburn to suffer the man, although he thinks him something of a fool.
The three settle into an uneasy partnership and push into the Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma) where Chaney has fled to possibly join the outlaw gang run by “Lucky” Ned Peppers. The terrain is hard, and the weather is bitter, but Mattie refuses to give up and demands justice for her father.
Many have claimed that this film is a much more accurate adaptation of the 1968 True Grit novel by Charles Portis, than the 1969 John Wayne movie was. That may be true, but odds are not many have actually read the novel. Between the two movies though, there are some plot differences, but more importantly, there is a radically different tone. The original True Grit was a typical western film, despite its somewhat atypical hero. This film is a much darker, and more realistic look at life on the frontier. Old grudges resurface easily, and life can be violent and painful and short.
But thanks to the Coens’ use of darkness and humor, True Grit manages to find a balance that entertains and keeps you interested from start to finish. The story is solid, but it is simply the rail on which the film moves. The real brilliance of this movie is the characters and the world they exist in. The pacing is handled well, and the film never slows down, even when you suspect it might. Scenes where the characters are waiting for things to occur do not drag, and that is meant as the highest possible praise.
Fans of the original movie– the purists that begrudge this film’s existence–will likely be surprised at how differently this movie comes across, even though both films follow the same overall plot.
The best acting, top to bottom, of the year
Jeff Bridges takes the somewhat iconic role of Rooster Cogburn and not only owns the role, he creates an iconic character of his own. There is no real comparison to draw on, and there really has never been a situation where two people could potentially win the Best Actor for playing the same fictional character (if there is an example, I can’t think of one. Feel free to post below if you know of one). Bridges probably won’t win for the sole reason that he won last year for Crazy Heart and the Oscars tend to avoid back-to-back winners. But he deserves to win, and gives the best male performance of the year.
Bridges loses himself in the role, and within minutes of seeing his Cogburn, you will forget that you are watching Jeff Bridges–more than that, you will know a great deal about the character from his movements and attitude, not just dialogue. Cogburn is the type of character that is rarely properly represented. When Wayne played him, he was a hero that had a rough side. When Bridges plays him, he is a guy with a rough side that people do not consider a hero, nor should they. He is a guy that you would overlook as he slumped behind a bottle of whiskey while telling a long-winded story, but who you would not want to cross for any reason. There is a moment where Cogburn and Mattie are looking at a body they have discovered. A stranger walks up, and there is a physical and mental shift in Cogburn. He changes from the man who has seen it all and is surprised by nothing, to a killer, primed to react. His face hardens and his hand twitches on the gun. He positively radiates menace, and in moments like those you utterly forget that it is Bridges you are looking at. He becomes something else. He is the character Rooster Cogburn. Bridges’ performance is even more remarkable if you saw his turn in Tron: Legacy last week, which was as a pair of characters that are fundamentally different. They are night and day, and together just prove that Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors alive.
But for as good as Bridges is, and as memorable as his Cogburn will become, the true star of the film is Hailee Steinfeld in her first feature role as Mattie Ross. If Steinfeld can stay on target, on Oscar is awaiting her sometime in her future. She turns in a performance solid enough to merit a nomination now, but it seems unlikely for an unknown 14-year old girl to sweep past some of the biggest names in Hollywood for the statue. If she is nominated, it would probably be as the best-supporting actress. That would be great for her career, but it would be untrue to the film, because she is the star.
True Grit is told from Steinfeld’s point of view, and she is never far from the screen. She is the primary character of the film, and it is through her eyes that we experience the movie. Steinfeld’s Mattie is the driving force of the film, and a likable and entertaining character in her own right. She manages to avoid the stereotypical pitfalls of a child character, which ends up helping to define this film. Bridges owns the role of Rooster Cogburn, and his performance makes this movie memorable. But the film rests on the shoulders of Steinfeld, who makes the film great.
Matt Damon also turns in a role that is exceptional, but somewhat overshadowed by those of Cogburn and Mattie. That is not a criticism of Damon, far from it. He takes a role that could easily have been forgotten, as the character of La Boeuf is meant to be overshadowed, yet he adds a layer to the film that would otherwise not exist with a lesser actor.
Even minor roles carry weight, and two that stand out are Barry Pepper as “Lucky” Ned Pepper, and Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney. Pepper, who conveniently plays Pepper, is on camera for only a few moments, and yet his role is interesting and avoids becoming a stereotype. Brolin plays Chaney in a surprising way that also stands out. Throughout the film Chaney becomes the specter waiting at the end of the road. You know who he is through the biased descriptions of Mattie and La Boeuf, but when you actually meet him, the character is not what you would expect, and that is thanks to Brolin.
In general, True Grit is one of the best acted films of the year. It helps that the Coen Brothers are exceptionally good at taking average dialogue and turning it into something memorable, but the movie needed the caliber of actor it received to work as well as it did.
Behind the lens
The story of True Grit is mostly set in the wilderness of the American frontier, and the cinematography manages to capture the feel of the Old West as well as any film in recent years has. Large plains and vistas lead to mountains and valleys, and the film reminds us why despite the harsh conditions, people were willing to live, fight and die over empty plots of land. There is a certain majestic look to the cinematography of the Old West films, that many classic westerns filmed in locations like Monument Valley understood. True Grit takes what could be a dull looking landscape, and makes it appear beautiful and lush.
There is also a trick done with the lighting that turns the darkest of nights into a visually appealing landscape. For a film set in the 19th century, there are some amazingly high-tech visual effects at work. Most will likely go unnoticed by audiences, but should gain the attention of the awards communities.
As far as the directing goes, the Coens make it look easy. They have a very distinct way of making films that includes taking extraordinary moments and making them look common. On the same note, they can also make extremely average scenes stand out. As with all their films, there is also an emphasis on the dialogue, which turns what could be dull conversations into rich banter, filled with imagery and humor that comes from the expertly handled twisting of the English language in the script. Several scenes are marked by the characters either telling stories or arguing, but for the most part they are as entertaining as any of the action scenes.
It has been a strong year for Hollywood films. The summer blockbusters may have been a little shy of previous box office results, but there have been a huge selection of movies that are all worthy of discussion for the best film of the year honors. Go ahead and add True Grit to that list.
In terms of acting, there has not been a movie out this year that was so well preformed from top to bottom. Bridges takes an iconic character and offers a performance so strong that it might become the definitive version of Rooster Cogburn. Even the 14-year old star of the film delivers a performance that borders on amazing.
True Grit is simply a complete film from start to finish. There are no weak links to it, and it deserves to be seen multiple times to appreciate all the subtleties that the Coens love to pack in. It is also a great looking film that is visually appealing.
To put it simply, True Grit is one of the best films of the year, and comes highly recommended.
Great dialogue that helps keep the pacing moving. Fantastic performances from the entire cast, especially Bridges. A good story that is highlighted by the look, feel and tone of the frontier setting.
If you dislike the Coens’ style, True Grit won’t win you over. Fans of the original might not give it a chance.