True Grit isn’t like any other Coen brothers film you’ve seen before. While not inferior in quality, the movie just feels like a superbly written and directed Western and not like the brothers’ typical foray into filmmaking. There are no exaggerated characters, twisted plots or even Steve Buscemi. Just Jeff Bridges, some horses and the Old West. True Grit is an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name. In an era full of pointless remakes and sequels, questions primarily consisted of how the Coens were going to approach this one. Definitely a more faithful adaptation (and a better movie) than the 1969 John Wayne/Henry Hathaway film, the typical technical aspects of Coen filmmaking are there. Superbly written and classically directed, the Coens, along with Roger Deakins, remind us of what the true Western is.
The story revolves around 14-year-old Mattie Ross (played to perfection by newcomer Hailee Stansfield) trying to gain revenge for her father’s murder by criminal Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She heads out to find the toughest U.S. Marshall she can find, a man with “true grit” you might say: our shameless drunk of an anti-hero, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. Before they set out, however, a mysterious, cocky Texas Ranger simply named “LeBeouf” informs Mattie that he is also tracking Chaney, and will return him to Texas for a hefty reward. I will say no more for fear of revealing too much, as the true beauty of the film lies in the dynamics of our three protagonists.
The Coens always cast perfectly, and this film is no exception. Jeff Bridges is Rooster Cogburn. Sometimes with big name actors, it is hard to see past the actor in order to see the character, but this was just never an obstacle for The Dude who has, unsurprisingly, had his performance compared to that of the 1969 Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne. Where John Wayne was playing, well, John Wayne, Jeff Bridges’ transformation into the heavy-drinking, squalid U.S. Marshall is amazing. Seemingly perpetually pleased with himself, Rooster’s strength of character never gives way, even after losing a fight with Damon’s LeBeouf, who tells him, “You’re more handicapped with one eye than I am with one arm.” Under the surface, however, there is a hidden intelligence proving Rooster’s status as one of the best Marshalls in the land.
Matt Damon’s well-trained, confident Texas Ranger LeBeouf provides a friendly adversary to Rooster Cogburn, as the Ranger boasts about his ability to light a good campfire, shooting ability and general upkeep. He is not without merits, as he serves the perfect counterpart to our beloved Marshall, matching him with courage and determination, surpassing him in skill, especially with a firearm. While he is sympathetic and caring towards Mattie Ross’ situation, he is not completely without personal aim; he plans on taking Tom Chaney to hang for a crime he committed in Texas for a healthy reward. His skill as a Ranger and tracker is never in doubt, although his decisions at times appear rash, compared to Cogburn’s more watchful eye, preferably from a distance.
While Bridges and Damon are great in their roles, the show truly belongs to Hailee Stansfield as Mattie Ross. Her headstrong, determined attitude is what convinces Cogburn to take her offer, and what keeps the trio together through trials which could easily separate the seemingly natural-born rivals. Her arrival in Fort Smith begins with her collecting of her father’s body, and selling of his now-useless horses and ponies, including a refund of the horse Chaney stole from her father. Her stubbornness forces said dealer to give in to her requests, much to his chagrin. Rooster Cogburn is described as a merciless, tough Marshal with “true grit” but it is truly Mattie’s grit and determination which keeps the three together and ultimately bring Chaney, and the bandit gang he now runs with, to a swift demise.
While the cast is superb, the film is superbly shot and written not only as a western, but as a great adventure film. The film focuses on “the mission” and the dynamics of our three main characters, rather than trying to progress the plot along. So while it may not contain their typical filmic elements, the film is definitely not a drop in quality in regards to other Coen brothers films. It may not sit up there with the very best, but an adaptation, especially a verbatim adaptation, can be an easy way to lock yourself into a creative hole. What the Coens manage to do is work with and around this problem to create a wonderfully thrilling, telling and thoughtful drama.