Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross' (Hailee Steinfeld) father has been shot in cold blood by the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and she is determined to bring him to justice. Enlisting the help of trigger-happy, drunken U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) she sets out with him – over his objections – to hunt down Chaney.
The great surprise of True Grit, the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen, is that the famously obtuse siblings play it straight. In adapting Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, as opposed to remaking Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film, the Coens have made a film that pledges fealty to the collective ideal of the western as an elegiac ideal, while getting at the very misdeeds that make the notions of honour and right so necessary in the genre’s mythology. It is a bloody, blackly humourous adventure, not averse to satisfying an audience’s desire for righteousness, and the collective craftsmanship of those involved is so assured that it plays like an easy pleasure to both the eye and the ear.
As ever the Coens are sensitive to the twists and admissions of language. Speaking sentences laced with words such as "nincompoop" and "indubitably," the characters exchange barbs and business offers with decorous ease. The joke, however, is that their world bears no hint of language’s civilising influence – 1870s Arkansas is a violent place where words might influence, but a revolver is definitive. When 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in town – literally where the rail line ends – she talks of her family lawyer and proposes deals, but what she wants is someone capable of killing.
The teenager’s quarry is Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has murdered her father, his employer, and absconded to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Mattie settles on U.S. Marshal Reuben J. 'Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a lawman more likely to attend an inquest than a trial. John Wayne won an Academy Award for his 'Rooster’ Cogburn, partly as a salve to his long career and partly because he wasn’t averse to mocking his own mythology, but with his voice buried in his white beard Bridges plays the lawman as someone less cantankerous than sadly aware of what could transpire if he actually rouses himself.
Doggedly smart, Mattie insists on traveling with Cogburn, and they’re joined by an existing pursuer of Chaney, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a somewhat conceited Texas Ranger whose impressive moustache gives the actor the freedom to essay a character whose pluckiness requires a certain pompousness. When the two men bicker, it is Mattie who is the adult, although as they cross broken ground and traverse scratchy woods, she doesn’t always know best. "Why did they hang him so high?" she asks Cogburn as they gaze upon a roped corpse. "Possibly in the belief that it would make him more dead," comes the reply.
That is about as deep as the feel of philosophy runs in True Grit; there is none of No Country For Old Men’s contemplation of evil’s omnipotence. Chaney, when they finally encounter him, proves to be self-obsessed, wondering why nothing ever goes right for him. Yes, he’s a symbol of contemporary American conflict, resorting to violence to be heard, but it is not the Coens’ deliberate doing. They’re more concerned with the expertly assembled finale, where they finally loosen the reins for long-time cinematographer Roger Deakins, allowing his treatment of the landscape a hint of the vast and painterly as Cogburn proves to be the hero of the story.
The finale is both very straight and very satisfying, even if the Coens amend a stern coda to it. That’s not a slight on them, but rather a realisation that well into middle-age they are willing to abide by the boundaries of their material instead of attempting to transcend them, as they once did with The Hudsucker Proxy and screwball comedy. True Grit is as good as one of their minor works gets.
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