In the version of the Wild West that is depicted in this 2010 adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, human life is cheap and more often than not it is used as a commodity. When the smart, assertive and independent 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) teams up on a manhunt with Deputy US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), neither speak about justice in the legal sense. Hunting down the man who murdered her father is a personal act of revenge for Mattie while for Rooster it’s a commercial transaction. The pompous Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is tracking the same murderer, does seem motivated by a desire to see justice properly handed down but he’s out of his jurisdiction. True Grit is a classic chase story with a trio of characters who under normal situations would not choose each other for travel companions. In a moment of frustration Rooster sums up their attitudes towards each other best when he declares them to be “a foolish old man … a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop”.
Usually when directors/writers Joel and Ethan Coen make a film that belongs to a distinct genre the results are very reflexive and stylised. In particular, Coen Brothers films that adhere to popular Classical Hollywood genres; such as film noir (Blood Simple, Fargo), gangster (Miller’s Crossing) and screwball comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty); are both affectionate homages and subversively self-aware. What makes True Grit such a unique Coen Brothers film is how conventional it is in the way it conforms so closely to a traditional western. True Grit falls at the less noble end of the western tradition, since it is vengeance rather than justice that is the motivation for order being restored through violence. The characters and situations are represented as they are with no overt political commentary. Casual brutal treatment of Native Americans is the norm and the difference between an outlaw and a lawman is often little more than a badge.
However, there is nothing wrong at all about the Coen Brothers going old school especially when the results are this strong. True Grit is a compelling and engaging story that is told effectively and confidently. The use of browns, oranges and dirty whites in the costumes and sets give the film the appearance of an old black-and-white film that has been tinted with a brown wash. The use of early morning light at the start of the film and then the emphasis on dusk and night shots towards the end create a wonderful sense of passing time, for both the film’s narrative and Rooster, who represents a dying breed.
Portis’s novel has been adapted before in the 1969 film directed by Henry Hathaway, which is probably most notably known for being the film that won John Wayne his Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Rooster. Despite that award, it was not a great performance by Wayne who was a far better actor when under the direction of John Ford in classics such as Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In this 2010 version Jeff Bridges is much more adapt at portraying the mixture of comedic absurdity, menace and ruthlessness that makes Rooster such an intriguing character. He’s a drunk and a windbag but also quick to act and unafraid to use violence as soon as he sees it is necessary.
Matt Damon is infinitely better than Glen Campbell when he played LaBoeuf, with Damon’s version of the character being far more of a well meaning but frequently irritating buffoon. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross is especially strong in the 2010 film and a lot less masculinised in appearance than Kim Darby was in the 1969 version. While Darby did give a great performance, having her looking so overtly boyish did undermine the idea that Mattie could be tough, independent and intelligent while also being a young girl. In fact, the only things really missing from the Coen’s version of True Grit are a young Dennis Hopper and a young Robert Duvall in key supporting roles. Otherwise, this 2010 adaptation is the superior film.
With the exception of the strange arrival of a doctor who appears resembling a bear mounted on horseback, True Grit is one of the Coen Brothers’s least Coenesque films. Nevertheless, it maintains their command of film style and storytelling. After the intricacies of A Serious Man, Burn After Reading and No Country for Old Men there is something very pleasing with this straightforward and generically respectful film of revenge and strange allegiances in the American Old West.