Reviews: True Grit

Review of “True Grit”- Directed by the Coen Brothers
By Peter Bartels

Much of the talk surrounding the Coen brothers’ newest product True Grit has been concerned with the fact that it is actually a remake of an adaptation. Many moviegoers will remember the 1969 film of the same name starring John Wayne as U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn—a performance for which Wayne garnered his only Academy Award—but few are aware of the book that preceded it: a critically acclaimed novel by Charles Portis published the year before. With the weight of so much history behind them, one can be left to wonder how the Coen brothers could improve on a story that has twice been told with considerable success. Thankfully for this reviewer, I walked into the theater on Christmas Day relatively unaware of such expectations.


For me, True Grit was a Western in the most sincere sense. The writing was plain and pointed (hardly a contraction to be found), the plot was noticeably devoid of twists and turns, and the acting was anything but flashy. To this earnestness, add the sweeping cinematography and deft character development that have become Coen Brothers staples, and the result is an elegant and satisfying film that never approaches that oft visited area of trying too hard.

The simple story hinges on the relationships formed between the three main characters. Fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) hires U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to pursue and arrest Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father. Before setting out, Ross meets Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a man who takes himself much too seriously and is after Chaney for a separate crime committed in a separate state. The result is a manhunt composed of an unlikely and often quarrelsome trio, full of contests and banter and an altogether entertaining journey.

While the underlying message of True Grit is anything but superficial, perhaps the most surprising part of the film is how overtly funny it is. Damon and Bridges are constant entertainment as they strut and quip through the movie, fighting for their pride and what they respectively believe to be the pinnacle of what a man should be. Steinfeld, meanwhile, is a pleasure to watch. She is shouldered with carrying the first third of the movie, and does so with the confidence and competence of someone who belongs in such powerful company. It would have been easy—and perfectly permissible—for two established, A-list actors to steal the show, but Steinfeld matches her character’s doggedness, emanating consistent strength and an undeniable presence in scene after scene. As an added bonus, Josh Brolin is excellent as the dull and almost pitiable Tom Chaney, and Barry Pepper is instantly charismatic—in a somewhat filthy way—as the sharp and respected outlaw Ned Pepper. The two give tactfully sparse performances as the movie’s antagonists.

In the end, the most arresting piece of the story is the relationship formed between Mattie and Rooster. It is understated and pure, illustrated much more by actions than by their unforgiving words for each other. For all of their jibes and disagreements, the two foster a respect that eventually turns to deep care, a sentiment that Bridges and Steinfeld manage to make as real as the rolling landscape around them. The film’s final image can serve as a reflection of its whole: a lone figure walks away across an almost horizon-less meadow, while the simple but filling hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” comes to the forefront. True Grit is as powerful as it is sparse and sincere.

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