TRUE GRIT (2010)

One-line review: Eternal friendships bloom in the Wild West.

When the Coens announced they were remaking True Grit, many fans of the 1969 classic that won John Wayne his only Oscar raised their eyebrows. But the Coens were interested in the original source, the late and reclusive author Charles Portis’ best-selling and much-loved novel. The Coens’ interest in making a film truthful to the book is understandable because the 1969 film was made as a vehicle for John Wayne and made as a regular Western portraying him as the larger-than-life Marshall Cogburn. This perspective is entirely different from the book, which is narrated as a now middle-aged Mattie Ross’s memoir of her adventure when she was fourteen. Mattie’s fond recollection of those times gives the book its sweetness, although it’s a story about murder and revenge. The Coens film is faithful to the book, and despite their formidable writing skills, they retain many of the book’s lines verbatim, with their dialogues often serving as props to make the original lines crackle on the big screen (the writ of Replevin line is one example).  

The result is a classic that, despite the bloodshed, consistently tugs at your heartstrings, leading to a devastating yet supremely satisfying climax. Comparisons with the original are unavoidable, but John Wayne towered over that film, although Kim Darby as Mattie Ross stood her ground. On the other hand, this film belongs to the plucky Hailee Steinfeld. Since this is her story, all the adult men, although dangerous, are also bumblingly human. The adult Mattie is a devout and compassionate Christian; therefore, even the feared outlaws of the day, like Ned Pepper, are remembered as wayward men who need help (Mattie offers to lend him her lawyer).  For those unfamiliar with the book, the film is about young Mattie’s quest to catch and punish her beloved father’s killer, Tom Chaney. Since Mattie’s father was killed in an unfamiliar town where he went to do business, it is unlikely he will get any justice, mainly since Tom Chaney has fled to the nearby Indian territory outside the jurisdiction of the local mayor. 

Therefore, it falls upon fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, the oldest daughter, and her father’s bookkeeper, to take care of his unfinished business and capture his killer. We don’t get much background information about Mattie, and just when you begin questioning the believability of a fourteen-year-old girl trying to catch a dreaded killer alone, the film pits Mattie against the wily businessman Colonel Stonehill (a superb Dakin Mathews) who owes her father money. Stonehill tries to dismiss Mattie’s claims, but she confounds him so thoroughly with her arguments and threats of legal action through her good lawyer that he helplessly hands over the money, not fully understanding why. From then on, Mattie is firmly in the film’s saddle.

Mattie enlists the help of the feared old and alcoholic Marshall, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), after hearing that he has true grit compared to the other Marshals. A Texas ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), joins them because he is also looking for Chaney for a Texas Senator’s murder and convinces Cogburn to join hands and split the reward on Chaney’s head. The men, reluctant to allow a young girl to accompany them, try to give Mattie the slip, but she catches up on them with her trusted mare Little Blackie. Mattie is unhappy with Cogburn and LaBouef’s partnership but realizes she cannot have it all her way. 

Although the two men couldn’t be more different in personalities, they are similar in the size of their egos, and young Mattie often must be the adult in the group. Lebouf weaves in and out of the film, appearing in critical moments to save their lives and vice versa. But Mattie is mainly in the company of the bombastic Cogburn. Eventually, they catch up with Chaney. Trust Mattie to view even her father’s killer with compassion; we see Chaney complaining about the unrelenting streak of bad luck. Eventually, justice is served in satisfying ways, and the film returns to the present day with a middle-aged Mattie setting out to meet Cogburn, who is now part of a touring circus. The film’s post-script is its most powerful scene that soars with Iris DeMent’s glorious “Leaning on everlasting arms.” A song could not be more perfectly placed in a movie, the culmination of its refrain that plays throughout the film. Carter Burwell offers interesting insights in his blog about choosing church music for the film: Mattie’s religious faith is critical for the audience to believe in her courage.  

In the film, Mattie is the one with true grit, and rookie Hailee Steinfeld. is pitch-perfect as the forthright and petulant Mattie, who is sometimes too bright for her own good. But fortune favors the brave; how else would you explain even outlaws warming up to her? Steinfeld’s Mattie is the right mix of maturity and false bravado reflective of her age; after all, she’s just a child. Steinfeld is charming without trying. The Rooster Cogburn character is right up Jeff Bridges’ alley; it’s hard to see anyone else in the role. Bridges plays the alcoholic thumper who still has a strong moral code and tenderness, including saving a poor horse from mean kids. Bridges’ unlikely baring of his heart, regrets, and follies to little Mattie are the most moving scenes in the film. Like in the novel, I wished that the film showed Mattie as an active listener rather than quietly listening to Cogburn’s rambling, but in hindsight, this makes Mattie’s final actions even more poignant.

Matt Damon’s casting as LeBouf is probably the most interesting and divisive, with most viewers praising his comedic timing, while others think he’s miscast. I belong to the latter category, although I warmed up to him on repeated viewings. Despite the mustache and other trimmings, he seems more Jason Bourne than Texas Ranger. Damon says he modeled his character on Tommy Lee Jones’ swag, except that Lebouf is all swag and no substance. All I will say is that Damon didn’t ruin the movie. Barry Pepper is memorable as the feared yet surprisingly gentle Ned Pepper. 

As Dick Chaney, whose quest forms the film’s plot, Josh Brolin seems underwhelming when we finally see him. But like in the book, he’s no fearsome killer, only a swiveling thug. Even Mattie doesn’t think of him as bright. Brolin, like Damon, is too larger than life for Chaney but definitely adds to the film’s star power. The doctor (Ed Lee Corbin) in the bear skin offers comedic relief in the most unexpected time, and so does Jalrath Conroy as the undertaker. The Coens also throw in little crumbs exclusively for the book’s fans, like the outlaw making Turkey noises, which makes no sense in the film.    

The film relies heavily on Roger Deakin’s genius for its look. The indoor shots look almost Rembrandt-like. Deakins discusses the challenges of indoor lighting for the film here. Costume designer Mary Zophres’ (she was nominated for an Oscar for the film) detailing, like adding a monogram for LeBouf’s boot although we never see it on screen, or the fascinating story about the bear man costume is eye-opening about the sheer amount of work that goes into making a movie, especially a masterpiece like True Grit.         

The film lives up to its title by lingering with its unforgettable characters decades after its closing credits first appeared on the screen. Riding into the sunset never felt this poignant. 

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