The Coen Brothers do westerns well. Technically, True Grit is their first western in the classic sense of the word, but they’ve been gearing up to it for years. Most notably in No Country For Old Men, but even as far back as Fargo, the Coens showed influences from the genre that made John Wayne famous. It’s rather fitting that when the Coens finally make a pure western it’s the same story which won John Wayne his only Oscar.
Admittedly the Coens version is closer to Charles Portis’ novel than it is to the 1969 movie, but the spectre of the Oscar looms over the role of Rooster Cogburn once more, only now as portrayed by Jeff Bridges. Bridges, last year’s Best Actor Oscar winner, does a fantastic job in the Coens’ movie. He is every bit the grizzled Federal Marshall. He also gives hints of more depth to the character which is already quite full. Unfortunately these hints don’t lead to a more full character, they simply lead to questions as to where the hints lead. Rooster Cogburn is an intricate character expertly played, but this is not Rooster Cogburn’s movie, so much of his depth is left alone.
True Grit is however, the movie of Mattie Ross, as played by Hailee Steinfeld. 14 year old Ross’ father has been killed by Tom Chaney (Brolin), so Ross hires Cogburn to take her on the hunt to bring Chaney to justice. The Academy has a habit of nominating young, new actresses for Oscars. Saoirse Ronan, Gabourey Sidibe. . . Hailee Steinfeld probably represents the first time the Academy is justified in such a nomination. Steinfeld is Mattie Ross, through and through, the strong wilful character as written, and the scared 14 year old girl that seeps in on occasion, it’s almost a sin that Steinfeld couldn’t play Ross as an older woman for the epilogue.
As Mattie begins her quest to bring Chaney to justice, she also encounters LaBoeuf (Damon), a Texas Ranger also on the trail of Chaney. LaBoeuf is an interesting character, almost too clean cut. He does not seem to sit well in the gritty world occupied by Cogburn and Ross, but he is surprisingly able for that world. It drags him down to the mud at times, but there are other times that he drags it up a touch. LaBoeuf does stick out horribly at first, but it is interesting to watch Mattie begin to see the value in him.
The villain of the piece could be seen as Tom Chaney and Brolin plays him well. He appears the half-wit, but that is not all there is to the character. There’s more there; plenty to leave you questioning the short screen time he has, but the villainous villain is Lucky Ned Pepper (Played coincidentally by Barry Pepper) Pepper is the bad guy, he’s threatening, dangerous and an obvious rival to Cogburn, but never does he come across as a bad guy, that is just the place in the world within which he has found himself.
All this is expertly captured by the Coens and their master Cinematographer Roger Deakins, but it is unusual for the Coens to depend so heavily on plot to tell a story. Normally their films come from other aspects, characters, relations, scenarios all developing along a line which could be called plot, but plot is never terribly important to them. True Grit is very much driven by plot, the Coens mine everything they can out of everything around that plot, and it is all a thoroughly enjoyable film, but upon close, it almost seems directionless, as if something is just barely missing. True Grit packs phenomenal bite, but there is just one back tooth missing from somewhere. Fortunately that’s barely noticeable with all fantastic work around it.