Film Review: True Grit

The Coen Brothers hit the bull's-eye with this captivating western where the good guys fight with words first and guns second.

Early on in Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit, the second movie to be made from Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name, there’s a short but crucial scene that sets the tone of the rest of this meditative (which, as we all know, is a polite way of saying “slow and talky”) western. In it, a precocious 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (TV actress Hailee Steinfeld in an impressive feature film debut) walks into a small office in the frontier town of Fort Smith, Arkansas, to resolve a business matter with its occupant, a local trader. A few days prior, her father, Frank Ross, made the trip to Fort Smith with his hired hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) to return some ponies he had purchased from this man. While in town, the two got into an argument over money, which ended with Chaney shooting Ross and fleeing into Indian country. Now, Mattie has arrived to collect her dad’s body and settle his affairs, including the return of the ponies.

Entering the trader’s office, she engages in some polite chitchat about the price of cotton before making her identity known. Certain that he’s dealing with nothing more than a grieving child, the man offers a few perfunctory condolences about the “tragic” death of the elder Mr. Ross. She counters with a business proposal: full price for the return of the ponies as well as an extra $300 for her father’s saddle horse, which Chaney stole from the trader’s stable. Half-amused, half-surprised, he tries to wave her off, but Mattie refuses to cede her ground, arguing her case with the same composed demeanor, even as his protestations grow louder and more strained. Legal threats are made, assurances are demanded, and by the end of this heated standoff, Mattie emerges the victor, walking out of the office $320 richer. That’s the way duels are fought in the Coens’ Old West—with words, not pistols.

Having secured the necessary funds, Mattie embarks on the second part of her mission: hiring an officer of the law to hunt down her father’s killer. She finds her man in Rooster Cogburn (a wonderfully hammy Jeff Bridges, taking over a role originated by John Wayne in the 1969 film version, which finally netted the Duke a Best Actor Oscar), a grizzled, one-eyed, perpetually soused U.S. marshal who has trouble remembering precisely how many men he’s killed both in and out of the line of duty. Cogburn is more than happy to take her money, but balks at her other request, that she be allowed to accompany him on his manhunt. As we’ve already seen, though, Mattie doesn’t take no for an answer and is soon riding alongside him through hostile territory. Also joining the expedition is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, once again proving himself an underrated comic actor), who has pursued Chaney across several states in order to collect a sizeable reward for his capture.

The revisionist western has been the norm in Hollywood for some time now, with movies like Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven and TV shows like David Milch’s late, lamented “Deadwood” devoting themselves to taking the sheen off a heavily mythologized period in American history, to say nothing of an entire genre. It’s not just familiar western archetypes and storytelling tropes that are subverted in these works—visually they strive to undo the romantic image of the West perpetuated by movies like Red River and Shane.

True Grit, on the other hand, embraces the classical style of those older films, most notably in its lush visuals photographed by the Coens’ regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, who also shot the beautiful, if somewhat overpraised, 2007 western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Unlike some of the directors’ other genre riffs—think the shaggy-dog detective story The Big Lebowski or the farcical spy game Burn After Reading—this movie doesn’t offer an ironic twist on a familiar formula. Although some of their trademark sly humor is present here, fans of those more overtly comic films may find themselves disappointed by the way the Coens appear to be playing True Grit safe and straight.

Ah, but those folks would be wise to give the film another chance, this time keeping their ears attuned to the rich, complex script the brothers have written. Much like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, True Grit unfolds as an extended series of negotiations, with the characters using language to resolve impasses, only resorting to violence when absolutely necessary. The dialogue—much of which is taken directly from Portis’ book—has a formal quality to it that sounds stilted at first but gradually acquires its own distinct rhythm. In classic westerns, the measure of a man was ultimately determined by his actions. Here, the very notion of what constitutes “true grit” is exemplified by Mattie’s ability to state her convictions and defend them when challenged. As the film approaches its elegiac finale, True Grit becomes a reverie not for the Old West but for the art of conversation.