Movie Review: True Grit

True Grit
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper
Release date: December 22, 2010

Let’s see who justly possesses true grit: Is it the grizzled, one-eyed U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whose depleted, wobbly, massive stature is indicative of his many battles with criminals and alcohol? How about LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a prideful Texas Ranger who has a sinister appearance and a ruthless mentality that conceals a heart of gold? What about the murderous villains such as Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) or Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper)? Unquestionably, all these men have grit, but is it true grit? All of them have been around many years and seen and done many heinous things. They are regular frequenters of this Wild West world that knows of no remorse, killing individuals as if it were a seasonal sport. But what about Matty Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, in a commanding film debut), that 14-year-old girl whose appearance is as pure as the snowfall? Do not let this hide the inner strengths she possesses. She wants to enter this western world of wildness only to avenge the death of her father’s who was killed by Chaney. She has grit for even thinking of entering this environment. And it is true grit because this is a personal journey that she needs to fulfill.

Very furtively True Grit instigates the idea of Matty becoming consumed by vengeance more so than any man in the movie because she is willing to put at risk her purity. She has not yet been tainted by evilness, but she puts herself in a position to be acquainted with it. Joel and Ethan Coen construct a tale of lost innocence by making Matty their center of devotion. Watch her as the Coens do, as she puts herself in the company of men whose innocence was taken away from them a long time ago. They have nothing to lose. She has an abundance to lose.

Never has Matty killed someone or was a witness to a heinous crime. Probably her closest encounter with either is when she enters a rustic courtroom (beautifully lit by cinematographer Roger Deakins) in which she first lays eyes on Cogburn, who is being questioned about the dozen or so criminals he has laid to rest in his days as U.S. marshal. Matty’s main asset is her intellectual depth. Just from her initial sighting of Cogburn she knows that he is the man she wants to help lead her to Chaney. Paying him a sum of money, he accepts her offer. She coaxes many men into doing things they do not want to do not because her rhetoric is far superior than most, but because she is an independent woman who knows how to attain what she wants. This happens to set her apart from everyone in her hometown of Arkansas. The intellect she owns is not enough to keep her pure and out of harm’s way in such a world that eroticizes violence. Intellect is useless in the Wild West. What thrives out here is experience and manliness. At once brave and an ignorant Matty travels into a country that is not suitable for a little girl and the result is an education on how to smear one’s purity in exchange for carrying out vengeance.

The Coens adapt the 1968 novel by Charles Portis more so than remake the 1969 film of the same title starring John Wayne. The story is nothing remarkable: Matty, along with Cogburn and LaBoeuf, wants to get vengeance on Chaney for killing her father who has fled Arkansas and entered into Indian territory, a place where only a marshal can make an arrest. The ’69 film was more of a character driven piece strictly for Wayne’s Cogburn to display his uncanny ability for not being able to mount a horse properly.

But the Coen’s version, a violent picture that remains faithful to Portis’ novel by keeping intact the novel’s wonderful way of language, is an extremely plaintive film in the vein of Eastwood’s Unforgiven that lingers with us after it is over because it is told like a fable. This is made visible with breathtaking images courtesy of nature (a lyrical snowfall, vast horizons, night sky’s many stars, and a lone cabin in the heart of a mountainous plain that houses a tiny flicker of light) and images courtesy of disturbing allurement (a man riding a horse with a live bear’s face to keep his face warm; a man hanging dead very high above the ground on a tree branch, and an empty jug that casually drifts down a stream due to fright).

A beautiful world emerges before us, but it is a world that is full of vengeance and bloodlust. The Coens put on screen a world that has yet to be explored by civilization. Maybe remaining unexplored because individuals’ profound preference is to vengeance rather than exploration. The lands’ only frequent inhabitants happen to be vengeance and bloodlust and the men who embody them. One can imagine countless men hungry and motivated by blood and reward journeying through these barren lands while they kill time by discoursing about life, paying no admiration to the scenery but heavily contemplating how they will satisfy their starving instincts of savagery.

Matty does not stand above the Wild West as she does in a civilized town. She gets buried by its vulgarity and savagery while trying to retain her wit and intelligence. No longer can she use fancy rhetoric to get ahead. No, she needs more than that. When we see her aiming a loaded pistol, which almost equals the size of her upper-body, at a man, we realize, as she does, that intelligence is no longer a superior asset. It has been reduced to a trivial characteristic. It is life and death once outside of civilization and she is smart enough to acknowledge this. But she is not ready to see what she is bound to see. When getting ready to venture these lands, she throws on her daddy’s big jacket and puts on his hat which she stuffs with paper so it fits her snuggly. This reminds us of children playing cowboys and Indians. She is ill-prepared to enter into a vengeful world. In the Coens’ No Country for Old Men Tommy Lee Jones’ veteran sheriff retires because he knew he was not ready to face the evil that was sweeping his town. Matty does not know she is not ready. This is what makes the Coens’ True Grit work. It is totally her show and the two main male leads are there for her so she can rest her head on their shoulders when the going gets tough.

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****


  1. A soild film. I enjoyed it.

    Comment by John — December 24, 2010 @ 9:35 am

  2. Awesome review.
    I enjoyed it as well.

    Comment by Jerry — December 24, 2010 @ 11:52 am

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