Ever since Jeff Bridges won the hearts and minds of Little Lebowskis via the philosophy of The Dude, he has become a fan favorite in any role. In True Grit he’s moved beyond middle age slacker and onto fat old guy with a gun – but he’s not the star of the show.
Mattie Ross is a fourteen year old girl who strolls into town to manage the burial detail of her recently slain father by the no good dog Tom Cheney. Determined to see justice brought to her father’s killer, she outwits her male obstacles to get Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf to capture the outlaw, who has now fled into uncharted Indian territory.
First off, this is as thematically powerful as the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men – it’s a Western comedy. Adverts make it out to have similarities to Unforgiven‘s serious demeanor, or at least to be an action packed shoot ’em up, but neither notion gets at the film’s marrow.
The film’s true weight rests on the shoulders of Hailee Steinfeld playing the cunning Mattie Ross. Sure, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) know their violence well, but Ross cuts them down with her lexical dexterity and gymnastic wit before they can clear a round from the chamber. One altercation leaves a man stammering like he’s forgotten where he has placed any words other than “Yes m’am.”
Given the seasoned actors Steinfeld is put against, it’s a Christmas miracle that she keeps pace – Bridges as the drunken sharpshooter must have taken a DaLorean to the nineteenth century to peg Cogburn’s accent, and Josh Brolin’s performance lends an amazing amount of complexity to a slow-witted character who is on screen for less than 10 minutes.
So True Grit is a quest film in which Mattie Ross proves she can keep up with any man, and her bullish intelligence makes her a hilarious sparring partner with Cogburn and LaBoeuf as they chase Cheney.
A standard storytelling rule is you take a character from point A to point B. The character must have changed by the end from where he or she was at the beginning, which is a gaping hole in True Grit. Mattie Ross sets out to kill the man who gunned her papa down SPOILER and she does it SPOILER OVER. The film hints at some sort of growth as pursues this venture (witnessing murders, having to keep Cogburn and LaBoeuf on task), but it never dives into these teased places.
Finally, some words about the ending.
SPOILER ALERT, SKIP PARAGRAPHS
Early in the film Mattie needles LaBoeuf about allowing the dummy Cheney to outwit him, a Texas Ranger. When Mattie runs into Cheney, he really is a simpleton. In fact, his demeanor toward Mattie prior to her blowing a hole through his ribs is kindly. Overall he seems like a guy with mild mental retardation – which begs the question, did he really kill Mattie’s father? Maybe he only did it because one of the people in the gang he rolls with told him to. Just like the hints at Mattie’s possible change while on her journey, when we actually meet Cheney it hints at something underneath that is never revealed.
Lastly, throughout the entire film we come to understand Mattie Ross is not someone to be lightly trifled with. She may be a fourteen year old girl out in the Western world, but she’ll make you eat your condescension and like it. Which makes it all the more galling that she has to be saved (when she’s never needed saving before the kidnapping) after stumbling into a pit which also happens to hold poisonous snakes. All the time spent building her up as an equal to the man is undone when they force her to be a child needing rescue.
From here on to the end it’s kind of terrible: Mattie is bitten by a snake, Cogburn races to get her to a doctor and as he falls to his knees holding Mattie in front of a house, the film goes black. It then cuts to many decades later when Mattie goes to visit Cogburn at a traveling Western show circus, only to find out he died. The film then literally ends with Mattie saying, “Time just gets away with us.” Someone get Viagra for this limp-dick ending
MAJOR SPOILERS OVER
The whole film puts along like an old, but well maintained car. Formalistically it’s masterfully crafted and narratively you never quite know the exact path they’re following (a refreshing treat).
However, the ending leaves very little to care about. The cast is running on all cylinders, but their characters are never allowed to grow through their journey together, so it feels vapid. Mattie Ross’ final words also do nothing to ease the film to a close, but instead feel laughably abrupt.
If you love other Coen Brothers comedies (Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), True Grit has the smart, humorous banter that would make Shakespeare applaud. If you’re looking for a great action Western or a decent dramatic Western, neither satisfaction will be found.
*True Grit adds to the other great female characters of the year, Hit Girl (Kick-Ass) and Ree Dolly (Winter’s Bone). Ree in particular is quite similar to Mattie in their stubborn nature and striving to take care of their families. Mia Williams from 2009’s Fish Tank also comes to mind (review to come).