Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel is hardly new territory but quickly diverts away from the 1969 Henry Hathaway version that got John Wayne an Oscar. Simultaneously darker and funnier, the Coen brothers’ True Grit pays homage to the traditional Western, utterly devoid of their subversive irony. Despite their straightforward approach, however, the Coen brothers shift the film’s focus so that the story is more concerned with its assertive young girl rather than her male role model.
Following her father’s murder at the hand of his employee – one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) – Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) intends to settle his affairs. As she turns to the force of the Law to help capture her father’s killer, Mattie realises that in a world where human life is often used as a commodity, she must find a man of “true grit” to get the job done. She hires the toughest U.S. Marshal in the area, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and the two set out with Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) to hunt down the murderer.
True Grit is entirely impressive in the way that the Coen brothers have mixed post-Peckinpah and Altman Western stylisations with the genre’s classical chase story. The film is gritty throughout, especially in the motivations of vengeance rather than justice to restore order. The streets are filled with mud, the brutal treatment of Native Americans is normal and the lawmen kill as many men as the outlaws. What is most noticeable is the Coens use of language. The characters have very distinct tongues, feeling right out of the time period. Accents are authentic and viewers lose words but not emphasis from the stronger drawls.
Yet the true grit of the film is found in Mattie. While she initially believes she must rely on a strong male figure to truly attend to her father’s business, Mattie becomes aware of the fallibilities of all men surrounding her. When Mattie earns her place in the physical journey to find Chaney, she is actually following the road that makes one a man. Her position, however, is constantly challenged: Chaney helps teach Mattie how to fire her own gun and an outsider directly questions her presence. Even after she has settled her father’s business, she still relies on Cogburn to keep her safe. Yet by the end of their quest, she has overtaken her male compatriots in terms of grit. Neither male is unmanly – Cogburn is slothful and drunk but unafraid to use violence and LaBoeuf is naive but well meaning – but their weaknesses are still apparent.
Yet Mattie’s achievement of earning true grit is never celebrated. At the end of the film, Mattie becomes neither a lady nor a man – she is an isolated soul. The journey has shown her an altered version of laws and morals and it becomes difficult for her to rejoin civilized society. Her only link to the world is through Rooster Cogburn, and his drunken manner means he won’t be there forever. So while True Grit is a straightforward, conventional Western for most of its running time, the final minutes are much more akin to revisionism and the demythologisation of the heroes and the reaffirmation of myth as myth. Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit is the superior adaptation of Portis’ novel because of this.
In this version, we also see more believable and intriguing characters through wonderful performances. Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is much more adept at mixing goofiness with ruthlessness. Matt Damon is also clearly superior to Glen Campbell when playing LaBoeuf, delivering a loose and fun performance that also finds the balance between humour and solemnity. Yet it is Steinfeld’s Mattie who commands the screen with her strong-willed character – a talented performance that holds its own against the male leads, including the exquisite Josh Brolin, whose brief appearance as Tom Chaney is entirely memorable. Also stunning is Roger Deakins’ cinematography: naturalistic lighting, smooth camera movements and some beautiful backdrops pair effectively with the browns and dirty whites of costumes and sets.
True Grit may be one of the least Coen-esque films but the brothers always maintain their command of the form. A straightforward classic Western in plot, this is a deceptively profound film.