Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin
Rated: PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images.
The Coen Brothers have done it again: their new film, “True Grit,” is a glorious experience, a throwback to old school Westerns with all their good points and none of their flaws. It’s a straightforward story, told in a simple, tight fashion in which nothing is wasted, no detail is unimportant.
When 14-year-old Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) learns her father has been killed by one of the men he hired to help him on a trading expedition, she travels to town to claim his body and see about settling his affairs — including making sure that the man who killed him, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), is brought to justice. She finds a U.S. Marshall who is said to have true grit, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and hires him to track her father’s killer down and bring him in. Part of the deal is that she will go with him to make sure he actually does the job. She gets her way through bullheaded determination, even when a Texas Ranger on Chaney’s tail, LaBoef (Matt Damon), joins the party and tries to send her home for her own good. As the trio venture into Indian territory after their quarry, nothing goes quite as planned, and they each have their grit thoroughly tested.
The film is as much a meditation on what it means to have grit as it is a tight and well-executed story. LaBoef is so determined to catch his man that he keeps going after him, even after being badly injured. Rooster has a drinking problem but is still a crack shot and completely fearless. Mattie shows almost no fear, and when she is afraid, she does what is necessary anyway. Eventually even the men come to grudgingly respect her and are forced to admit that she proves herself out on the trail.
The acting is as superb as we’ve come to expect from the Coens — they choose their actors wisely and as co-directors are top notch at drawing spectacular performances out of their talented casts. Damon manages to make LaBoef both a little straitlaced (he’s far more prim and proper than Rooster and tells tall tales about the Rangers) and someone we can respect for his not inconsiderable skills. Bridges has a more difficult task: making the larger-than-life drunkard Rooster both true to the script and someone we can believe is real, sympathetic, and even admirable. He handles the role with just the right touch, as anyone familiar with his career would expect.
The real revelation here is Steinfeld as Mattie. She holds her own onscreen with considerably more experienced actors without any difficulty, and makes Mattie both believable as a young woman and as an adventurer in the wild West. She avoids the obvious pitfalls a role like this provides and delivers a strong, well-crafted performance as a brave young woman whose determination and grit carry her through a difficult time.
The setting, camerawork, costuming, and so on are all spectacular; “True Grit” is easily one of the best films I have seen in recent years. Unless you have an aversion to Westerns or are can’t stand films with the occasional gruesome bit of imagery (gunshots and other wounds, and the occasional corpse), do not miss this film.