Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a 14-year-old farmgirl who arrives in town to collect the body of her father, who was robbed and killed by the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), one of his hired hands. Bent on seeking revenge for her father's murder, Mattie hires crotchety US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track and capture Chaney - only she insists that he take her along with him. But she's not the only one looking for Chaney. A Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) has been on Chaney's trail for months and wants to bring him to justice for another murder.
What we thought:
You have never met a character like Mattie Ross before. True Grit being an old-school Western, a character as full-on and precocious as this comes across as another wonder of the world - she's just too much will for even two lawmen to handle. And she's also the great tragedy of this impossibly enjoyable roadtrip movie from the Coen brothers.
There is precedent for True Grit - it's based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis that was adapted for the big screen the following year with John Wayne in the role of Rooster Cogburn. And even though Westerns as genre are generally something of an acquired taste, in the hands of the Coens, True Grit is a lively and endlessly entertaining adventure filled with larger-than-life, instantly likable characters. It also serves a perfect entry point for anyone unfamiliar with the Coens, or perhaps daunted by that name's legacy. True Grit is perhaps their most straight-laced film, but also their most thrilling.
Once you've gotten over the shock of Mattie Ross' stubbornness, you'll discover a responsible young woman who has decided to take on the responsibility for her family in her father's stead. She has two younger siblings and a mother who can scarcely spell 'cat'. Her willfulness is something of an annoyance to the adults she encounters, but her youth belies a freakish wilfulness that, as a trader who owes her money discovers to his detriment, is not to be trifled with. That early scene in particular is an absolute delight and makes full use of the era's unique language, rich with meaning and also very playful.
Steinfeld, herself a 14-year-old newcomer, attacks the role from the start and never looks back or out of place in this story that would in every other respect, be a man's prerogative. She is so at ease opposite veterans like Bridges, Brolin and Damon it might take you a while to fully appreciate that she is just a 14-year-old girl. If anything, it only adds to the wonder of this role.
And, truly, in Bridges she has a fine co-star, even though it is nearly impossible to make out exactly what Cogburn is trying to communicate through his whiskey-soaked, drawled-out mumbles. What we do know is that he is a merciless hunter and would really rather not have to take care of a little girl while trekking through harsh Indian territory. Together Cogburn and Mattie cross paths with villains, medicine men and hapless victims, and though the Marshal may be quick with his gun and jaded by the cruelty and foolhardiness of men, Mattie's exposure to these dangers slowly but surely become less of a lark and more of a growing concern. Even more concerning is that she has taken to wearing her father's coat, boots and hat. The sight of this child in a dead man's clothing is somehow more disturbing than all the murder and mayhem she becomes witness to.
Damon has not been getting enough praise for his solid supporting role as the proud Texas Ranger. Unlike the original movie, this one has the advantage of coming after the age of Chuck Norris, so when LaBoeuf declares his status, it is a purely comical moment. His and Cogburn's growing affection for with Mattie suggests something beyond an all-encompassing sense of duty - they're the team who somehow work at cross-purposes to achieve the same thing - and when the party finally come upon Chaney and his gang, the stakes suddenly rack up higher than anyone can afford.
In the great tradition of Westerns, True Grit stages a fantastic stand-off in one of many climaxes, elegantly composed by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who also shot Fargo and The Big Lebowski for the Coens. The wide open spaces and winter landscape is good enough to eat off, like an age gone by that's also close enough touch and play around in.
True Grit is a stunning thrill-ride that doesn't quite take any expected turns. In fact I was left more wounded after seeing this than after watching James Franco amputate his own arm in 127 Hours. So, like most Coen brothers' productions, this is pure, unadulterated fun, but with a perverse twist.
You're not likely to forget this tale easily.