True Grit is probably the most straight-forward film that has ever come from the irony-laced imaginations of Joel and Ethan Coen. Perhaps that’s appropriate since the movie is essentially an homage to that most All-American of all movie genres, the western.
Taking place in 1878, True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, a 14 year-old girl (Hailee Stienfeld) whose father is killed by a drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Tom flees into Oklahoma so Mattie goes to Ft. Smith, Arkansas and hires alcoholic, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track Chaney down. Cogburn agrees and teams up with a Texas ranger named LeBouef (Matt Damon) who is also looking to capture Chaney for an unrelated crime (and to pick an equally unrelated reward). The three of them form an unlikely and uneasy alliance as they search the harsh wilderness for Chaney, who has hooked up with outlaw Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Along the way, reality proves itself to be far less prosaic and ideal and justice turns out to be far less straight forward than Mattie had originally assumed.
As you might expect from a Coen Brothers film, there’s a lot of moral ambiguity on display. Cogburn is a former outlaw who is mainly motivated by his own greed while LeBouef is an arrogant blowhard. Meanwhile, the nominal villains often show more humanity than our “heroes.” Even Tom Chaney appears to be more overwhelmed than evil. This is a western where the “good guys” ambush their enemies and shoot them in the back. Throughout the film, the Coens contrast the beautiful cinematography of Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell’s traditional score with the brutality and violence on-screen.
True Grit is a remake of a 1969 film and Jeff Bridges is getting a lot of attention for taking on a role that was originally played by John Wayne. I haven’t seen the original film so I can’t say if Bridges gives a better performance than Wayne. However, to be honest, Bridges probably gives the least interesting performance in the entire film. I know that a lot of people are raving about his work here but I think those raves are more about the actor and less about the performance itself. When people look back on this movie, they won’t remember Rooster Cogburn as much as they’ll remember Jeff Bridges wearing an eyepatch and slurring his words like your alcoholic cousin on the 4th of July. Bridges gives a good enough performance but there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been done just as well (or better) by either Tommy Lee Jones or Joe Don Baker.
If anything, the movie belongs to Steinfeld who gives a wonderfully focused performance as Mattie and who serves as the perfect audience surrogate. As the two main villains, Brolin and Pepper both give excellent performances and the fact that both of them are almost likable only serves to make them all the more effective as “bad” guys.
True Grit is a good movie because the Coen Brothers aren’t capable of doing any less. Technically, it’s probably one of the best films of 2010. Still, the movie left me vaguely disappointed. For what it is — a straight genre piece — it’s a superior work of craftsmanship. However, from the Coens, I’ve come to expect a bit more.