Film Review: “True Grit”

by Jason LeRoy on December 21, 2010

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in TRUE GRIT.

starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper

directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images.

Joel and Ethan Coen continue their career-long appraisal and reinvention of cinematic Americana with True Grit, a damn-near-perfect adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Sortis. The novel was previously adapted in 1969 with John Wayne in an Oscar-winning performance as Rooster Cogburn, but the Coens have now crafted a truer, stronger retelling of this mythic Old West tale.

Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who was cast from a pool of 15,000 applicants) is a remarkably self-possessed and determined 14-year-old girl whose father was senselessly murdered by a no-good outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Before Mattie goes to live with her grandparents, she resolves that she must avenge her father’s death by having Chaney killed. For her, there is simply no other option. It is the only honorable thing to do.

After a thorough inquiry, she decides that she would be best aided in this mission by a tough U.S. marshal named Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Rooster rebuffs Mattie’s initial attempts to hire him, but despite the fact that Rooster is pretty much an old drunk mess, Mattie insists that he is the man for the job, and eventually he acquiesces. So, joined by jackass Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and the stubborn Mattie, who outwits Rooster’s attempt to leave her behind, Rooster sets out to find the man who killed Mattie’s father.

This is a virtually flawless piece of entertainment–funny, suspenseful, surprising, instantly riveting from its first moments. Doing their finest work since Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men, the Coens create a masterfully controlled, deliciously dark tone. Hilarious setups are followed by sudden bursts of the Coens’ trademark shocking violence; this is one of the most graphic PG-13 films in history, and definitely underscores the MPAA’s ever-topical nonsense double standards about sex and violence.

The Coens yet again display their deftness with drawing brilliantly unexpected humor and quirky dark edges from their actors. This is truly a Jeff Bridges performance for the ages; despite John Wayne’s iconic work in this role, it is now difficult to imagine anyone else playing Rooster Cogburn. Bridges throws everything he’s got at this role, and the resulting performance is Dude-level in its awesomeness.

As LaBoeuf, Matt Damon gives a hilariously despicable performance, not to mention unglamorous; this is possibly the most grotesque he’s ever looked onscreen, and you can feel him reveling in the grossness of it all. In his brief appearance as Chaney, Brolin is remarkably unhinged and feral. And, in her work as Mattie, Hailee Steinfeld announces herself as a major new talent. This is a great, great performance: rock-solid, heartfelt yet unsentimental, like the film itself.

True Grit works beautifully as a companion to another of 2010’s more notable films, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Both tell the stories of indomitable, whip-smart frontier teens who are forced into journeys of danger and discovery following the loss of their fathers. But unlike the crushingly bleak Bone, True Grit has enough humor and showmanship to transcend the darkness of its story and become an unmitigated delight. Truly one of the year’s best films.

RIYL: westerns, the Coen Brothers, Jeff Bridges

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