Though the subject matter is certainly dark, True Grit is one of the brightest Coen Brother’s offerings in some time. While No Country for Old Men was something of a horror movie with modern western elements, True Grit is pure western. What surprised me most about the movie was its lack of quirkiness—simply put, the Coens produced a wonderful western without attempting to revolutionize the genre. What makes this particular film brighter than recent Coen offerings is its characters. The three main characters are verbose, witty, and thoroughly entertaining. If the Coens’ recent films have shown a knack for tragic leads, True Grit reveals a knack for dynamic protagonists who in the end, nobly show their true grit.
For the central protagonist, Mattie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld), a 14 year old girl whose father was shot and killed by the coward Tom Chaney (played by Josh Brolin), True Grit would seem to be a very serious coming-of-age film. However from her first major dialogue when she bargains with a horse trader we quickly learn that this movie is going to be fairly comedic and that Mattie is no ordinary young girl. The movie quite brilliantly walks the line between comedy and serious western. The landscapes and settings of the movie continually illustrate the dire circumstances Mattie and her two cohorts are in and yet their witty banter never lets the viewer feel desperate.
The Coen Brothers have said that they did not set out to remake a John Wayne movie but to make a movie of the original novel by Charles Portis—in fact, when they set out to make the movie, they hadn’t seen the John Wayne film. If there is a signature Coen touch to this movie, it is found in the dialogue between each of the major characters—reminiscent of O Brother Where Art Thou, the dialogue of True Grit is cognizant of its setting and yet possesses a certain elegance that feels natural given the complexity of it characters. Jeff Bridges (who plays the role of Rooster Cogburn) says the dialogue was “almost like doing American Shakespeare.” There is a certain rhythm to the script and like Shakespeare it exhibits an impressive vocabulary.
The story finds the three main leads, Mattie Ross, Rooster Cogburn, and LaBoeuf (pronounced “LaBeef”) played by Steinfeld, Bridges, and Matt Damon respectively, being forced into situations in which their true character must shine. Both Cogburn and LaBoeuf have glaring flaws. Cogburn is a drunk and incorrigibly selfish. LaBoeuf is arrogant and the epitome of an overly proud Texan. Despite how annoying both of these leads are, the movie reveals both of these men’s redeeming qualities quite appropriately in the end.
Despite fantastic performances by Bridges and Damon, the most impressive performance certainly comes from Steinfeld (only 13 years old during filming) as her character proves to have the most grit. It is her determination, courage, and intelligence that serves an appropriate foil to Cogburn and LeBoeuf. Mattie is bravest and most determined of the bunch, and it is her character that shines so brightly so as to bring out the hero in Cogburn and LeBoeuf.
The easy response to True Grit would be to write it off for some of its seedy characters, but that would be a shame, because in the end, the movie reminds us that dire circumstances show our true character and we are all, despite ourselves, capable of heroism. Further the movie illustrates, via Mattie, how our character invariably will influence the character of those around us. It could be argued that Christians should beware of the theme of vengeance in this movie, but Mattie seems motivated more by a desire for justice than vengeance and in the end it’s clear that the movie was never about revenge. The Coen brother’s latest is a story of transformation–two selfish men turn selfless heroes with the help of a young lady with true grit.