Aoife Barry reviews the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit.
In the Coen Brothers’ Western True Grit, there is one voice that steers us along the way – that of 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a determined and plucky farm girl who is out to capture her father’s killer and have him hanged.
It is Mattie who narrates – as her 40 year old self – the film, and Mattie who brings us to meet Rueben J “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed US Marshal with a penchant for badly-rolled cigarettes and with blood that’s probably half whiskey. She sets her sight on him as the best man to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the hired hand who murdered her father, and won’t let his hard-drinking and half-arsed ways stop her from achieving her aim.
Mattie is stubborn, with an uncompromising Presbyterian ethic and a focus is as straight as her braided hair. She is rarely ruffled and her sharp tongue and fast thinking gets her what she wants. Even when she wears her father’s oversized coat and hat on her trek to find him, she doesn’t look like a little girl playing dress up; Mattie is who Mattie wants to be, and her spirit lifts this film.
This is the second adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name, and follows the 1969 film adaptation, which starred John Wayne and Glen Campbell. Ethan and Joel Coen said they tried to make this version closer to the book, and with more violence than the previous film. The violence, bloody and uncompromising, isn’t over the top or unnecessary; instead, just like the soiled undergarments Reuben Cogburn wears, it’s a natural part of life for these men.
Given that this is a Coen Brothers film, it is smattered with dark comedic moments. When Mattie has to spend the night minding her father’s body, the Irish man in charge of the funeral home tells the young girl, “You can sleep in a coffin if you want”. During her first meeting with the lumpy and slightly thick Texas Ranger called La Boeuf (Matt Damon), he tells her he has just rode in from Yell County. She takes one look at his fancy spurred boots and suede jacket and declares: “I wasn’t aware we had rodeo clowns in Yell County.”
The not-too-clever La Boeuf is a nice change of role for Damon. La Boeuf is also seeking Chaney, but for his own reasons – and if he catches him first, he wants to bring him to Texas. As this is not what Mattie wants, against Rooster Cogburn and La Boeuf’s wishes she accompanies them on their trek into the Indian Nations to find Chaney, who for all they know could himself have been murdered.
Though the cast is small, it is strewn with memorable folk. Along the way they meet our own Domhnall Gleeson, who is fantastic as the dim and doomed Moon, who appears in a pivotal scene in a smoky log cabin. A bizarre, bearded man with a bear head for a hat is another character who leaves an impression. When we eventually meet Chaney, Brolin plays him as a foolhardy drunken mess, a violent man who can barely string two comprehensible words together. He and the Pepper gang that he rides with are an unsavoury lot, villains through and through.
This violence is reflected in the Texas landscape, with its barren mountains, changeable weather and dangerous twists and turns.
Although Steinfeld steals the show as the clever Mattie, Jeff Bridges inhabits the role of Rooster Cogburn like he was born to play him. He takes his time to endear himself to us – and Mattie – what with his drunken ramblings and defensive attitude, but their relationship develops in a special way.
Though Mattie says she chooses Rooster because he has ‘true grit’, in reality she too has that sense of grit, and it is this that keeps her focused on avenging her father’s death.