For a while, it seemed as though the Coen brothers made films in two distinct modes: affectionate, nostalgic pastiche (The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother Where Art Thou) and hard-edged, blackly comic thrillers (No Country For Old Men, Fargo). However, in True Grit they seem to have finally found a way to combine the two, and the result is a terrific piece of filmmaking.
In 1880, fourteen year-old Mattie Ross sets out to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a shady drifter named Tom Chaney. However, between her and her goal stand an inhospitable landscape, murderous marauders and the brutality of the frontier, so she persuades alcoholic lawman Rooster Cogburn to help her track the killer into Indian Territory. Cogburn is played with gnarled cantankerousness by Jeff Bridges, immersing himself completely into the grizzled marshal in a very fine piece of character acting. Matt Damon, however, should not be overlooked for his highly polished turn as the arrogant, hot-tempered Texas Ranger also on Chaney’s tail, with Damon near-unrecognisable under facial hair and dirt. The 1969 version might have revolved around John Wayne, but this new adaptation sticks to author Charles Portis’ original vision, with the main focus being on Mattie Ross, played forcefully by impressive newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.
Mattie is a unique character from her first appearance, when she begins settling her father’s affairs with a steely briskness which is fascinating. Although with her Calvinist worldview and dour demeanour she at first appears a million miles away from the slovenly, drunken Cogburn, the two share a flinty determination and stern frontier hardiness which lend an intriguing symmetry to their partnership. Above all, though, True Grit is an adventure story; a gripping, earthy Western in the finest tradition of John Ford or Howard Hawks.
As always with the Coens, one of the main draws is the dialogue. The characters speak a language we like to think they spoke, semi-Biblical in its eloquence and rich in period colloquialisms. Add to this its slew of top-notch performances, and a recreation of a frontier town so vivid that you can smell the wood and tobacco juice and you have an intensely evocative vision of the Old West which entrances the viewer and sucks them irresistibly into Mattie’s world and her dogged quest for justice. Films such as this, built around plain good storytelling and truly distinctive characters are few and far between in today’s Hollywood, so grab the chance to savour this one while you can.