Welcome to Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of the wild West. There is no John Wayne here; nor is there a Clint Eastwood. Thankfully, no Will Smith or Kevin Kline either. There are no grand entrances or larger than life characters or smart lines. No, this is a reimagining offered by the Coens: grim and gritty; harsh and unflinching; a West where white men rule; blacks and Indians are mistreated as a matter of fact and determined little girls are given a good beating for being that way. However, despite its grimness, this is the most conventionally entertaining film by the Coen Brothers that we are likely to get.
True Grit is a story set in Arkansas about a young 14 year old girl Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) who recruits the foul, boozy but competent Federal Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to catch and bring to justice the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who killed her father and has fled into the Indian Territory. Also in pursuit of Tom Chaney is the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who intends to bring him to justice for the murder of a Senator in Texas. Together, they must work through the treacherous terrain to catch the merciless Chaney.
In terms of story, True Grit lacks novelty. Also, the pacing may be too languorous for many people. But the patient viewer will be rewarded. The strength of the film lies in the steady direction of the Coen Brothers and the performances of all the actors. The Coens recreate the West with great emphasis on atmosphere and detail. The film is exquisitely shot and produced with a careful eye. The costumes and production design are fabulous in their authenticity and details. The script is remarkably somber, intense and maintains an air of tension and peril throughout. The Coen Brothers direct the film with a sure hand and provide an intelligent and powerful experience.
The film also benefits tremendously from some splendid performances. Jeff Bridges is brilliant as Rooster Cogburn. He is foul, arrogant and disgusting and yet, not for a minute, detestable. Matt Damon is competent as always. Some of the finest moments in the film are when Bridges and Damon’s characters engage in a battle of egos. However, the one standout performance in the enterprise comes from Hailee Steinfeld who is absolutely riveting as Mattie. She plays her part with remarkable ease, stealing the thunder from Bridges and Damon in several sequences. She is an absolute delight to watch as a girl who is an interesting mix of uncharacteristic intelligence, sense of duty, determination and sheer naïveté who must make her way in a man’s world that dismisses her outright on account of her age and gender.
Ultimately, although I am not a big fan of Westerns, True Grit is a good example of fine film making. It is arguably the most accessible of the Coen Brothers films and though unlike their previous works, benefits from their attention to atmosphere and detail. Anchored by some fantastic acting, particularly the performance of newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, the film proves to be an engaging, at times, intriguing tale of retribution and a mighty fine Western.