Directors: Coen Brothers
Running Time: 1hr 50minutes.
From the very first beats of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, you know your deep in classic Western territory. The opening bars of Carter Burwell’s score evoke the vintage themes of icono-classics like Magnificent Seven, The Searchers and Young Guns 2. (Do I have to tell you I’m Jon Bon joking about that last one?) As Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) steps off a steam train into Fort Smith in search of vengeance, you can almost taste the arid dust and chewing tobacco, smell the questionable personal hygiene, and feel the urge to fire a gun in a man’s face just for cheating at cards.
Her father robbed and murdered at the hands of brown-toothed scoundrel Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), Mattie is in town to get his affairs in order and to enlist a gunslinger to bring the villain to justice. That gunslinger turns out to be a surly, stubborn, alcohol fuelled Marshall by the name of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Rooster has one eye, mumbles in a croaky baritone drawl not unlike Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade and is in all sorts of trouble with the law due to his ‘shoot everyone, all the time’ policy.
Truly traditional whilst also feeling utterly authentic, True Grit is a joy. It is breathlessly brisk but lets its significant moments breathe in the name of character; one of the earlier scenes in which Cogburn is grilled in the witness box is both revealing and hilarious. In an age before Two and a Half Men tried to turn human brains into twitching bags of mind-guts, all these pilgrims had was their sharp tongues and six-shooters, and the dialogue crackles with a colourful brand of uncompromising wild west-ness not heard since 1992’s Unforgiven. From Cogburn’s unique reasoning for not burying the dead ‘Ground’s too hard. Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer…’ to an undertakers attempt to soothe Mattie as she stands over her father’s corpse ‘If you’d like to sleep in a coffin, it’d be alright’, its darkly comic charms are intoxicating.
As we’ve come to expect at this stage, Bridges is outstanding as Cogburn, with more fire behind his single eye than most actors have with two. Maaatt Daaaaaamon’s thatch sideburns and fat moustache do 50% of his work for him and the rest is made up by a perfect balance of humour, verbal dexterity and even slight goofiness as the Texas Ranger also hot on Tom Chaney’s heals, LaBoeuf. But it’s the 14-year-old Steinfeld as the tough-as-nails-that-are-made-out-of-even-tougher-nails Mattie who, both, draws us into her adventure and then makes us care so very much that she survives it. With her perfectly symmetrical plaits, confidently articulate drawl and flawless handling of whatever acting punches these heavyweights throw her way, she is effectively the only female on-screen for all 110 minutes and THE reason why True Grit feels like one for everyone. A sequence where she recklessly and determinedly crosses a deep, rapid river on horseback while Bridges and Damon look on in growing astonishment is as good as any scene from any Western of the last 40 years. Watch that face.
So, why not full marks? The reasons are two-fold. As the inevitable final shoot-out rolls around things begin to feel slightly disjointed with a very vanilla ‘twist’ and no clear antagonist to root against – a grotesque looking Barry Pepper shows up late leaving us unsure about whom we are supposed to want dead. Him? Brolin? EVERYBODY??? And then there’s the age old Hollywood sign-off: The Coda. For the unaware out there, in Hollywood terms a ‘coda’ is a moment at the end of a movie that is supposed to give us some sort of trite resolution or wisdom and make us leave the picturehouse with a thoughtful, satisfied feeling. The less said about the films final scenes the better, but to be overtly simplistic for one marvellous moment…it’s real downer, man.