Mattie Ross: Who's the best marshal they have?
Sheriff: Bill Waters is the best tracker. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn, a pitiless man, double tough, fear don't enter into his thinking. I'd have to say L.T. Quinn is the straightest, he brings his prisoners in alive.
Mattie Ross: Where would I find this Rooster?
One of the running themes in many films directed by the Coen brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) has revolved around the idea that they do not seem to like their characters (there is also another running gag that their characters are mostly, for lack of a better word, dumb). As much as we root for them or hope for endings where the protagonist ends up at a shining point in their lives, while the antagonist receives some kind of comeuppance for their wrongdoings, a majority of Coen movies tend to go against the grain in some capacity and function in a more darkly comedic way (Burn After Reading is a good, recent example). This darkness turns many people off (basically because the audience has just watched the Coen’s push a friend of theirs off a cliff). Due to this, it is not often that the Coen’s produce a film with mainstream appeal (Barton Fink or last year’s A Serious Man are perfect examples of this). I have remained a huge Coen brothers fan, but I understand where their objectors are coming from. With all that being said, their adaptation of the Charles Portis novel True Grit, first adapted as a western staring John Wayne, is perhaps their most accessible and enjoyable film since Fargo. It has all the usual quirks that one would find in a Coen film, which will easily satisfy their devotees such as me, but it also has the makings of a film that I believe almost anyone could find entertainment in.
The film centers on Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl, who undertakes a quest to avenge her father's death at the hands of an outlaw, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie is well educated, direct, and very tomboyish, constantly arguing to get her way. After dealing with the body of her father and attending to some financial business, Mattie persuades an alcoholic, but sure shot US Marshal known as Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her in tracking down Chaney. Against Cogburn’s wishes, Mattie joins him on his trek into Indian Territory, where he believes Chaney to be hiding. Joining the duo is a cocky and loquacious Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who also wants to find Chaney and bring him back to authorities in Texas. The three manage to come across many dangers during their journey, as well as their own individual challenges.
LaBoeuf: Congratulations Cogburn. You’ve graduated from marauder to wet nurse.
Among the many things that are great about this film, one of the true standouts is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. This is a young newcomer who has to stand toe-to-toe with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin, and she is well up to the challenge. Steinfeld is able to channel all the right elements required of her character. She gets across the idea that she is knowledgeable beyond her age, but still needs to gain life experience. She also has the perfect knack for Coen-styled dialogue scenes. An early scene where she haggles with a much older man is a perfect blend of her precociousness, quirky humor, and old west dialogue. Later on, as she learns more about the law men working with her, she manages to discover what she needs to and helps the men, particularly Cogburn, reflect on their own characters.
As good as Steinfeld is, there is of course the rest of the awesome cast as well. Jeff Bridges shines (again, as this man is just knocking out roles lately) as Rooster Cogburn. Doing well not to take anything away from John Wayne’s previous (Oscar winning) performance, Bridges gives the character the kind of swagger, look, and attitude of a man who may seem careless and at all times drunk, but also knows how to get the job done, especially since his brand of justice means shooting down anyone who may be in the wrong. An early scene in a courtroom manages to establish just the kind of man that he is, or is at least seen as by most. It is certainly a performance that is both fitting of a western like this and as a role in a Coen brothers’ movie.
Matt Damon has the task of playing the cocksure Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (pronounced La-Beef), and does so without feeling like he is trying to show anybody up. It is the mark of an actor who is clearly an A-list talent, but still knows how serve as an effective character actor, filling in the space that is needed for his role. That being said, his character is highly entertaining to watch, mainly due to how well Damon handles the large amount of old west dialogue required of him. LaBoeuf is very much a man who wants to not only do his job, but show off how smart he is while doing it, but similar to other characters in Coen brother’s movies, he really is kind of goofy.
Finally, in terms of the cast, you have Josh Brolin and a barely recognizable Barry Pepper as the despicable outlaws. With Brolin, you have a man that is mostly a haunting shadow throughout the film, as Mattie sees him as a personal demon she seeks to rid herself of, but once you finally meet him, it is almost as if a rug is pulled out from under you and a truth (or joke) is revealed. Brolin does what is required of him and certainly earns back his man card after mumbling his way through Jonah Hex. With Pepper, on the other hand, you have a character that seems as if he really is just downright sinister with his motives, based on his attitude. While maybe not much more of a sharper tool than any of these other folks, he certainly has a handle on how to deliver his threats. The confrontations involving these men and our heroes are very effective.
This brings me to my next point. The Coens have produced action scenes before, but they have always been done with either a comedic intent (Raising Arizona) or with a strong handle on the tension involved (‘No Country’, Blood Simple). In True Grit, in the spirit of a true western, the shootouts actually function as cool and crowd pleasing. You root for the hero to come out on top. Accompanied by a very fitting score, provided by Coen regular, Carter Burwell, it was wholly appropriate to feel like cheering for Rooster Cogburn and his six-shooter prowess. And as far as the PG-13 rating goes (a rarity for the Coens) and for people thinking this should be darker, watching this movie, it is as bloody as it needs to be.
As far as the production quality for this movie goes, I can safely say that this setting easily establishes these characters as having the best facial hair of any movie this year. There are plenty of fun moustaches and beards to check out. The rest of the film looks great too. Similar to the Coen’s film Miller’s Crossing, which was heavily stylized as far as representing the 1920s goes, this film very much wants to be an authentic western. While I may not be an expert on hats, all the characters feel like they live in this world. The pronounced, old-timey dialogue used has a great western-jargon feel. The environment and scenic moments are beautifully captured by another Coen regular, DP Roger Deakins, who manages to fill the quieter scenes with great shots of the landscapes and weather present.
The only issue I actually have is that the film felt a bit short in my mind (still, it is about 110 minutes). I chalk this up to having so much fun watching these characters. The whole journey is very entertaining as well as interesting, as we learn more about Cogburn, LaBoeuf, and the relationship between them and Mattie. There is also little time spent with the villains of the film, but it is handled appropriately in how those scenes are structured, so I cannot say it is not fitting of the film.
As we approach the end of 2010, it is always nice to have a new Coen brother’s film deliver on the abilities they are capable of. The added bonus for this film is that I believe many will be able to enjoy it. The characters are great to watch; the dialogue is fantastic; the action is cool and heroic; the look and feel of the setting is authentic and gorgeous; and the film as a whole is highly entertaining. The western genre is certainly not dead, and this is another great addition to that spectrum of film.
Ned Pepper: What's your intention? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?
Rooster Cogburn: I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience. Which'll it be?
Ned Pepper: I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.
Rooster Cogburn: Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!