True Grit

Posted on December 22, 2010 at 8:05 am

In a remake of the John Wayne classic that is truer to the Charles Portis book, the Coen brothers have made their most sincere film yet, a western as spare and yet majestic as its unspoiled landscapes. Like all great westerns, it is a meditation about the forces that shaped the American spirit, the determination, resilience, passion for justice, and most of all the mingled pragmatism and idealism.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s previous films have had a preciousness and remove from their often-grotesque characters, a frequent feeling of ironic air quotes in their picaresque speech patterns and fantastic, even mythic plot twists. This time, they give us a sincere and appreciative portrayal of a steely 14-year-old heroine (remarkable newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) who wants to find and kill the man who murdered her father. true-grit-2010.jpg
Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a girl whose tight braids demonstrate her no-nonsense determination. She crisply negotiates the disposition of her father’s body with the undertaker and then demonstrates her mastery of horse-trading by selling back to the local broker the horses her father had come to town to buy, and, with a little extra leverage from a threatened lawsuit, getting some cash and a pony out of the deal. And so when she sets her mind to hiring the top tracker in town to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father, you know she is going to be successful.
That tracker is Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man who may too old and infirm (he has an eye patch and a drinking problem) and possibly be too quick to kill (he can’t or won’t recall under oath the details of some of the men he’s killed) to do the job. It turns out someone else is looking for Chaney, a Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (Matt Damon). The two men have no interest in working together and even less in bringing along a 14-year-old girl, but their mutual determination and stubbornness has them soon on the trail together.
The first version, directed by Henry Hathaway, was a bit of a miss-match and a more than a bit meta, with Wayne playing and playing off of his screen persona, pop singer Glen Campbell as LeBoeuf, and Kim Darby, then in her 20’s, playing Mattie. In this film, the actors are far better matched to each other and their roles. Bridges, whose most memorable role may be in the Coens’ “The Big Lebowski,” fully commits to the character, not caricature, of Rooster Cogburn. The asperity and resolve of the young girl are well matched by the man who may be undisciplined and ungovernable but who is also in his own terms honorable. It is these two, both who must continue after dire physical sacrifice, who represent the forging of a social construct that will support frontier society.
The landscape, spare, magnificent, and challenging, is stunningly photographed by the Coen brothers favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Production designer Jess Gonchor makes every shot look like a painting somewhere between Thomas Eakins and Grant Wood. Each shot is meticulously framed to add a transcendent dignity and seriousness of purpose to the story.

Parents should know that this film includes a good deal of cowboy violence with characters (including 14-year-old) in peril, injured, and killed, with some graphic images of wounds and corpses, some references to adultery, and some salty language.
Family discussion: How were Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf different in what they wanted and how they went about it and how were they the same? What do we learn about Mattie in her dealings with the undertaker and horse trader?
If you like this, try: the excellent book by Charles Portis and the the original film with John Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance as Rooster Cogburn

Related Tags:


Action/Adventure Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical Remake Western

18 Replies to “True Grit”

  1. I’m so glad you liked this, Nell. I’ve had high hopes that in “True Grit,” the Coen Brothers would finally create a role that is perfect for Jeff Bridges, since I am not a fan of “The Big Lebowski.” “The Dude” may have seemed like a great character in the previews, but the movie just didn’t work for me. The tone varied too wildly and the movie seemed to lurch from comedy to jarring violence to bizarre dark comedy. What was John Goodman doing in that movie? Anyway, I can’t wait to see “True Grit.” I loved “A Serious Man” last year and it seems like the Coen Brothers are on a roll.
    BTW, are you going to post a review of “The King’s Speech”? Saw it last weekend, thought it was the best picture of the year, and can’t wait to find out what you thought of it.
    Happy Holidays!

  2. I’m not big into westerns, but I enjoyed this one. It does have its oddities, the slightly stilted speech patterns of the characters, for instance. Typical of most of the Cohen brothers’ efforts, the movie teeters on being spoofy and over-the-top at times but manages to retain most of its dignity, versus dissolving into silliness. I thought Hailee Steinfeld, with her face and voice reminding me of a young Judy Garland, was spot-on as Matty Ross.

  3. It’s a best movie Western that I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen more than a few. The mix of “pragmatism and idealism” is hard to explain but it seems very American and the Coen brothers get it right. Still, this is a Western, and there’s a lot of shooting that will frighten and annoy some people. Children are abused and there’s an incident with some rattlesnakes that will give some people nightmares. Ah, yes, the old frontier was a rough place. The big question may be,
    “How does a good girl, from a respectable family, deal with this
    hard reality while remaining true to her values?”

  4. Thanks for an excellent comment, Mr. Murphy! That question you ask is the right one, along with the corollary: And how do those choices forge the foundation for the society that follows?

  5. The Coen brothers have been hit or miss with me, and this was a miss. I agree that the 14 year old does a good job, but wasn’t Oscar worthy in my opinion. The plot was too thin, too simple, and I was hoping for something more. When they finally find the bad guy, it seemed too “easy” and that bothered me.
    I haven’t seen enough westerns to make heads or tails on that genre, but I paid $6 and that is all this is worth. The grainy cinema was fine with me, as that type of movie should be shot that way.
    I simply don’t agree with the high rating on this movie.

  6. Thanks for a thoughtful comment, Mike. I think the best of this movie was in its themes and atmosphere. The fact that the plot was essentially simple was part of the point. But I can see your point of view, and appreciate your thoughts, which will be very helpful to people who are deciding whether they should see the movie.

  7. I really liked this movie. Just saw it tonite. Great review Nell.
    I agree with your comment that the actors were well matched to their roles and to each other. The one thing that I would add is that in addition to Jeff Bridge’s and Hailee Steinfeld’s excellent performance, I really enjoyed Matt Damon’s performance. I have to admit that I actually didn’t recognize it was him during the movie. And I am a big fan of his. While part of that may be my own inattentiveness, I think the greater part is that he is truly becoming a chameleon like actor. Daniel Day Lewis often works the same magic for me.

  8. Hi Nell,
    Great review! My friends have been divided on this movie, but everyone wants to talk about it. We keep returning to the idea of ethics–I started thinking of how much Mattie relies on business ethics as well as moral/Christian beliefs. She pays for what she wants and expects Rooster Cogburn to deliver, to the letter. And in the end, when she exacts revenge herself, she pays for it in a physical way.
    This made me think of other Coen Bros movies that deal with honest business, from The Hudsucker Proxy to the shady trades of Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing. I felt like True Grit was a serious boiling down of this idea. That it was exciting and beautiful was a bonus.

  9. I saw this yesterday, Nell. I agree with you that “True Grit” was very well-done and well-acted, with a minimum of show-offy technique, but I must admit I found more to admire than to like in “True Grit.” Hailee Steinfeld was amazing, as were Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, who made Tom Chaney into a pathetic if frightening character.
    The pacing and cinematography were great, the script was great, and there was certainly a lot of black humor (I liked the horse trading scene, and the scene with the bear, in particular). But, fundamentally, “True Grit” is full of sadness and loneliness as well as heroism. On the other hands, given how the Coen Brothers handled this Western, perhaps their next challenge should be to film the stories of Flannery O’Connor. They’d be perfect.

  10. My kids (ages 13, 16 and 17) were only interested after seeing the trailer online. I sort of forced them to go today. They loved the story, but my 17 year old daughter was a bit taken aback on the knife violence parts, which was weird because she has only been bothered by sex scenes before. Anyway, overall, I’m so glad that we all saw it as a family because the lessons learned are huge. I wasn’t sure how they would react, but they all want to read the book now.

  11. Thanks Nell. I simply fell into this movie and did not want to come out. I watched til the very last credit rolled, to see where it was filmed. I agree that this is for high schoolers on up, but mainly because younger children won’t understand the nuances and references, e.g. to Rooster’s (probably) participation in the massacre of civilians in Kansas during the Civil War. I thought every person in the film was superbly cast, including each and every spectator in the courtroom scene. After seeing this we watched the John Wayne version – couldn’t hold a candle to the remake in my opinion, although I then read the book and I suspect, from some of the dialogue (Rooster repeatedly calling Mattie “baby Sis” for example, that Portis may have had Wayne in mind). I will be seeing the remake again, now that I have read the book. Don’t know how I missed the book in college. Thanks so much for your reviews. Too late for my own girls, but we have a baby grandson now, so keep writing!
    Kathy McDermott

  12. Thanks, Kathy! Wonderful to hear from you. I loved it even more the second time. I am a fan of the first film but it is a star vehicle for Wayne. This version benefits from having a real 14-year-old playing the heroine and a better-balanced cast all around, plus the gorgeous music and cinematography and the stronger foundation in the book.

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