I’ve always enjoyed westerns. There’s a lot to be said for a straightforward action story that celebrates classic virtues – honor, courage, justice, and self-sacrifice. And Joel and Ethan Coen’s critically and commercially acclaimed remake of the classic “True Grit” fits the bill nicely. It’s a well-paced, flawlessly acted drama that, refreshingly, retreats from the sordidness of modern cinema. By embracing a more traditional aesthetic, the Coen brothers succeed in creating a dark, engaging masterpiece.
(Since this film has been out for awhile, the following sections contain spoilers.)
The heart of “True Grit” is Mattie Ross (Hailey Steinfeld), a plucky fourteen-year-old with plenty of nerve. After the senseless killing of her father by villainous Tom Chaney, she vows not to let his murderer escape unpunished. She promptly hires a fierce, trigger-happy U.S. marshal – “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) – to track down her quarry. But Cogburn’s not the only one searching for Chaney – cocky Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also hot on the killer’s trail. At first, the two strong-willed men refuse to work together – and refuse to allow Mattie to accompany them. But, as one might expect, Mattie isn’t dissuaded. The three form an uneasy alliance that takes them deep into the heart of Indian country, where they must ultimately confront Chaney and his outlaw companions.
It sounds like a simple plot – and in many ways, it is. But where so many other movies would have fallen short, “True Grit” shines. This is accomplished in large part by excellent pacing. Big-budget action scenes always take a backseat to character development, which gives the movie a memorable resonance. Early on in the film, Cogburn is called as a witness at a murder trial. The ten-minute scene that follows gives viewers a uniquely comprehensive look at the marshal’s character. In an era of effect-centric moviemaking, such deviations from the norm are immensely refreshing.
The film also contains a somewhat complex exploration of revenge themes. Viewers are left with the question of whether or not Mattie’s odyssey is a search for retribution or a righteous crusade. On one hand, she fully intends to kill Tom Chaney herself (and eventually does so). She refuses to entertain the possibility of trying him for other charges – LaBoeuf is after Chaney for crimes committed in Texas – and never loses sight of her pitiless goal. Cogburn and LaBoeuf, despite participating in her quest, don’t share the same motive. However, it could also be argued that her pursuit is morally justified, considering that local lawmen have abandoned all hope of apprehending Chaney. By operating alongside a U.S. marshal, she is theoretically under the auspices of his authority. This thesis, however, is also flawed – by paying Cogburn to assist her, Mattie employs him in a bounty-hunter capacity…which sets a dangerous precedent for vigilantism.
Ultimately, however, the movie rejects a revenge-centric mindset. In the climactic scene, Mattie shoots Chaney with a shotgun, killing him. The recoil, however, sends her flying backward into an abandoned mine shaft, where she is bitten by a rattlesnake. To save her life, Cogburn rushes her to the nearest doctor – carrying her in his arms when their horse dies of exhaustion. The final moments of the film reveal the outcome of her snakebite: the loss of her left arm. The symbolism is clear: revenge is a poisonous, destructive force that leads to unintended consequences. She has avenged her father, but quite literally lost a part of herself in the process.
From a worldview standpoint, “True Grit” has a vaguely existential tone. A much older Mattie returns to the West in an attempt to find Cogburn, but learns that he has already died. The final shot of the film is of Mattie, dressed in black and standing beside Cogburn’s grave, silhouetted against the sky. She reminisces that Cogburn and LaBoeuf both had “true grit” albeit in their own ways – implying that meaning and purpose are found in individual strength of character, rather than in external morality. Conversely, Chaney is portrayed as cowardly, hinting that his greatest flaw is his lack of personal “grit” (rather than his contempt for the law). These themes, however, are not blatant enough to seriously weaken the film.
Technically, “True Grit” is stellar. The acting is top-notch, especially by newcomer Hailey Steinfeld. Characters come across as fully believable – as humans with both good and bad tendencies. The movie doesn’t idealize its heroes, but neither does it drag them through the mud of depravity. Wisely, the Coen brothers reject the popular “handheld camera” style of cinematography (i.e. what you might find in the Bourne trilogy) in favor of a more classic approach.
Objectionable content is mostly found in the form of infrequent western-style violence. Shootouts occasionally have bloody consequences, but there’s nothing extended or severe. As expected in a movie like this, there’s some language (including what I think was a garbled f-word) but it’s not pervasive.
Should you watch it?
“True Grit” is a must-see for western fans. It’s both an excellent western and a strong movie in its own right, with rich character development and complex themes. It’s mostly devoid of seriously questionable material, and offers plenty of food for thought. Viewers who don’t like westerns won’t have their minds changed by “True Grit,” but most moviegoers will enjoy it. There’s a reason why stories like this are enduringly popular – and “True Grit” is a perfect example.
An outstanding modern western. Definitely recommended.
Normalized Score: 5.8