The Coen Brothers 2010 adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel True Grit lives up to its title. As a second adaptation, the film is likely to be measured by many against the 1969 incarnation starring John Wayne. Considering the different social environment in which each film was released, and the alterations in the tone of Westerns made during the 60’s and 70’s by Sergio Leone, the 2010 version of True Grit is an arid, morally ambiguous tale of retribution.
Joel & Ethan Coen do an excellent job setting the tone of the film in the early scenes. The protagonist of True Grit is an articulate, headstrong, cunning 14-year-old named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who employs a Marshall to hunt Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father. Steinfeld’s portrayal of the pig tailed spitfire is calculated, expressive, and quick witted. Physically, she exudes strength through posture and facial expression. As an actress, Steinfeld, much like her character, is easy to underestimate due to her youth (13 years old) and positioning between screen titans Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. However, in the spirit of Mattie Ross, she not only holds her own, but is equally captivating in both dialogue and physical acting.
Bridges’ augmented voice is intoxicating, and adds as much texture to the timber of his lines as the coarse shooting locations bring to the film. From the first moment where he is introduced from the confines of an outhouse, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn is the consummate anti-hero: he is motivated by money, whiskey, and survival. The Coen’s take on Rooster is in the tradition of the Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood westerns. Bridges gives Cogburn a half-drunk stagger and drawl, and the attitude of a pistol whip. He cheats, ambushes his enemies, lies, and goes back on his word. By far, Rooster is not a John Wayne-eqsue cowboy, which makes Bridges’ portrayal feel authentic, layered, and honest. It is amazing that so many lines were delivered in mid cough, slur, or spit, and that they carried intent, purpose, and bravado. Bridges’ grotesqueness is a marvel to watch.
Matt Damon portrays the self-righteous Texan Ranger LeBouef, and is the moral counterbalance to Rooster. The two act as a yin and yang that are an interactive landscape on this quest of revenge. Rooster is an outlaw turned Marshall, and LeBouef is all lawman, and proves to be honorable despite his arrogance. At various times the audience is led to find admiration and contempt for both men, each with their share of faults and self-interest.
Cinematically, True Grit’s photography provides an atmosphere for the intensity of the scene work, however there is no new ground broken. The sets, locations, and camera angles do provide a realistic setting, however this adherence to realism does on occasion hinder the creativity of the visual storytelling. The scene where Cogburn hurls biscuits into the air and shoots them while drunk to prove his prowess as a gunslinger felt forced, and was shot unimaginatively. The viewer can barely tell what was shot. While it may have been intentional realism, the result fell as flat as the thrown bread.
The standout performances of the film belong to Steinfeld and Bridges. While the film is entertaining and enjoyable to watch, the visual storytelling slows down to the pace of the hunt after Mattie stubbornly crosses the river. The scene that typifies the pace of the long treks of the Old West is the campfire scene that cuts after Mattie’s suggestion to tell stories. The film does make the viewer question how they define justice, and through what means must it be carried out in a corrupt system. All philosophical notes aside, the film does drag at points. While it is an adventurous tale, it has the pace of wind on the prairie, and only at a few points do we ever feel that breeze convert to tornado.