I grew up with Westerns. The big music and booming voice of John Wayne is something I’m quite familiar with. Unfortunately some of my childhood memories are a bit spotty, and the only thing I really remember from the 1968 version of True Grit is the famous scene of The Duke riding towards four men with the reigns in his mouth, a rifle in one hand and a six-shooter in the other. So I walked into the 2010 version of the film with an open mind as a fan of both the frontier genre and one Jeff Bridges. I knew it was a story of a headstrong teenage girl, Mattie Ross, hunting down the man who killed her father with the enlistment of the aging, overweight, one-eyed drunkard Marshall Rooster Cogburn. Other than that basic premise and the knowledge that this is a straight adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel rather than a remake of Wayne’s Oscar-winner, when the lights went out I went into this one cold.
The Coen Brothers, filmmakers known for quirkiness and scenery, seem to have taken all of their quirks out of the equation and focused on the authenticness of this Western experience. In addition to capturing the breathtaking landscapes that made up the untamed territory into which the protagonists ride, they also encapsulate some of the finer details of that period of American history. Houses, courtrooms and shops look lived in, hand-built, rough and tumble like the people within them. Guns sound off and kick realistically. Nobody uses contractions. It sucks you in very quickly and you can almost feel and taste the dust of the road.
Every bit as authentic are the performances. In general, nobody here can be accused of phoning in a performance, or telegraphing if you will. What shows this off are some of the briefest performances managing to stick out. Barry Pepper and especially Josh Brolin are very effective frontier villains for the short time they’re on screen, and Dakin Matthews as the blustering shopkeeper with whom Mattie must haggle in the film’s opening cement the tone and timbre of the piece. Most of our time, however, is spent with three disparate yet inextricably bound individuals, and every performance here is solid gold.
Don’t let the pigtails fool you. She’s not to be trifled with.
Hailee Steinfeld is in the mix with some heavy Hollywood hitters and yet comes out as just about the best performer in the movie. Her portrayal of a fourteen-year-old girl doggedly pursuing frontier justice breaks down all kinds of barriers that some would find insurmountable. She’s brave without being fearless and it’s clear that she’s grown up fast and hard in a world that would have her staying at home, crochetting and waiting to get married off to some landowner. Intelligent, well-spoken and tenacious above all, Mattie’s an immediately memorable character. Hailee’s work is Oscar-caliber, and while I haven’t seen The Fighter yet and can’t say for certain she got snubbed, it’s difficult for me to reserve judgement.
For all the fun that gets poked at him, Matt Damon really earns his spurs as Texas Ranger LaBeouf (boy, am I straining the Western puns or what?) who’s looking for the same man as Mattie for different reasons. He comes off as an arrogant, city-clicker dandy, but that might be a smokescreen to obfuscate just how dangerous he really is. Faced with the inplacable Mattie and the slovenly Cogburn, LeBeouf has to demonstrate patience was well as tenacity in the pursuit of his own goals. Damon does a great job with this, elevating a character that could have ended up as Cogburn’s sidekick as someone that stands entirely on his own.
As for Jeff Bridges… what can I say, that man can act. As if playing both ‘the Dude’ and Obediah Stane hadn’t demonstrated his range in recent years, his inhabiting of Rooster Cogburn once again shows just the kind of performance he can bring to the table. When you look at Rooster in this film, you’re not seeing Bridges in any of his other roles, you’re seeing a one-eyed lawman who isn’t afraid to bust a few rules to do his job, loves his liquor almost as much as running down the bad guys and demonstrates a hilarious tendency for understatement. As far as I can tell, John Wayne was playing the role as Rooster, while Bridges is Rooster, at least for this film’s run-time.
Just about every time he opened his mouth, I was grinning.
If I have any complaints about True Grit, it’d be linearity. There aren’t many diversions in the story and no major twists to speak of. As much as a straightforward storytelling exercise is not necessarily a bad thing, there are those who have come to expect a level of complexity in the narrative that this movie lacks. However, the characters have more than enough depth and nuance to make up for this, and the acting and scenery are so captivating that you’ll want the film to continue, not because there’s more story to tell but because these characters are such a delight to watch.
Stuff I Liked: Realism and authenticness in this Western go a long way. No actor turns in a bad or lackluster performance.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: A little more development of Ned Pepper and his gang would have been cool, but really wasn’t necessary for the story so I understand why we didn’t have it.
Stuff I Loved: The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, the three principles are quite stellar and the movie as a whole stands on its own as everything a good Western yarn should be.
Bottom line: FILL YOUR SEAT YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH!