I never saw the 1969 version of this movie—the one starting John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn—nor have I read the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, but I greatly enjoyed last year’s version by the Coen brothers. which I saw last night.
It won’t be too much of a spoiler to give the plot outline. A 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (played by the wonderful Hailee Steinfeld), heads out west to avenge the murder of her father by the nefarious Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). With money obtained from the sale of her late father’s horses, she hires a frowzy and drunken U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt the murderer down. Mattie refuses to let Rooster go out alone, and doggedly rides with him into Indian territory, joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who’s pursuing the same man for a murder in Texas. They have a lot of “adventures”, or rather encounters, for the movie presents a panoply of oddballs and misfits, as one expects from a Coen movie. The final encounter, and the movie’s denouement, is heartbreaking: perhaps the best part of the film.
What made this film for me, beside the wonderfully assured presence of Steinfeld, was the dialogue, which is at once stilted and mesmerizing. I suppose the Coens are here imagining a kind of formalism that might have infected speech in the 1870s. Whatever it is, it’s at first startling but then becomes immensely appealing to the ear. Here’s Mattie arguing with LeBoeuf about where Chaney should be brought to justice. (You can find the whole script here).
When Chaney is taken he is coming
back to Fort Smith to hang. I am
not having him go to Texas to hang
for shooting some senator.
Haw-haw! It is not important where
he hangs, is it?
It is to me. Is it to you?
It means a great deal of money to
me. It’s been many months’ work.
I’m sorry that you are paid
piecework not on wages, and that
you have been eluded the winter
long by a halfwit. Marshal Cogburn
and I are fine.
You give out very little sugar with
your pronouncements. While I sat
there watching you I gave some
thought to stealing a kiss, though
you are very young and sick and
unattractive to boot, but now I
have a mind to give you five or six
good licks with my belt.
(Mattie rolls away onto her side.)
One would be as unpleasant as the
other. If you wet your comb, it
might tame that cowlick.
The cinematography is wonderful, Damen and Brolin do a creditable job, and Bridges—well, who knows how much of that crusty “character” is really just himself—but does it matter? And Steinfeld is worth the price of admission. True Grit was nominated for ten Academy Awards: Wikipedia lists Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Bridges), Best Supporting Actress (Steinfeld), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. (Unfortunately, the film didn’t nab a single one.)
This is not a great movie, but it’s a very, very good one, and I recommend it enthusiastically.
Steinfeld and Bridges