By: Roxana Hadadi
If you’ve grown accustomed to films from the Coen brothers as zany, quirky and weird, no one would blame you. Duh, they are – “Fargo,” “Burn After Reading” and “Raising Arizona” are all examples of the strange worlds Joel and Ethan Coen create, and they’re responsible for equally bizarre characters, too, like The Dude from “The Big Lebowski.” He abides, man.
It’s really only when the Coen brothers draw from novels that they do their most serious work: 2007’s “No Country for Old Men,” adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s work, was dangerous and thrilling, and their version of “True Grit,” originally a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, is similarly fantastic. A true Western, with none of the goofy sarcasm or erotic bowling scenes that define previous films by the Coens, “True Grit” is a somber, settled work, gripping in its cinematography and always tense. The right kind of pacing and the right kind of actors make “True Grit” fantastic, and though it’s tough to compete with the 1969 version starring John Wayne in the only role that won him an Academy Award, the Coens try pretty darn hard.
If you think of Westerns as cowboys and Indians on horses running at each other, then you’ve never seen the marvel that is “Dances with Wolves,” and you need to see both the original “True Grit” and the Coen brothers’ version. The latter begins with narration from 40-year-old Mattie Ross (Elizabeth Marvel), who recounts her adventure as a 14-year-old looking to avenge her father’s death. As a teen, Mattie (a superb Heilee Steinfeld, who was actually 13 during filming) travels into town to settle her father’s business and hire a man to track down his killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Chaney had worked for her father Frank Ross as a hired hand, murdered Ross when he tried to intervene in a drunken brawl and stole his two gold pieces along with a horse – all offenses, Mattie decides, which deserve death.
So after asking around, Mattie decides to hire U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, who was The Dude in the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski”) for the job, mainly because everyone described him as the most ruthless, with the most “grit.” Though he’s aging, fat and only has one working eye, when Mattie watches him nonchalantly admit during a trial to killing 23 criminals, she knows she has her man. Offering him $50 for the job, she gets it in her head that they’re to go off together to find Chaney and bring him back to hang – but such childlike innocence doesn’t last for long, and is in fact shattered by Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who shows up in town. He’s also looking for Chaney for the murder of a Texas state senator and his dog, and since the reward is a hefty sum, he and Cogburn decide to team up for the job – and leave Mattie behind.
She’s not that easily shrugged off, though, and after riding her horse through a deep river to prove she’s not going back home, Cogburn and La Boeuf are forced to bring her along. What follows is a tentative truce between Cogburn and La Boeuf, who have years worth of malcontent between them, and Mattie’s desperate desire for revenge tempered by the brutalities of her quest. Though she’s a fast-talking teen who can argue a horse trader into a frustrated tizzy, the horrors she sees during her time with the two men – criminals turning on each other, dead bodies, vicious shootouts – make her rethink her initial zeal.
It’s the motives pushing these characters – Mattie’s need to do right by her father and Cogburn’s and La Beouf’s contrasting moral codes – that make all the scenes in “True Grit” work, from one as simple as Mattie waiting outside the outhouse for Cogburn to finish his business so they can talk about her job to something more complex, like Mattie and Cogburn interrogating two criminals for information about Chaney’s whereabouts. And then there’s Chaney and the leader of his gang, “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper): The former is all-out evil, coarse and cruel for no reason at all, while the latter is more sympathetic to Mattie’s quest, more evenhanded in his awfulness. He understands her need to kill while also recognizing Chaney’s unhinged personality, and with all the kindness he gives to her, you may just forget Lucky Ned is a bad guy. Maybe.
What helps “True Grit” succeed is not only the film’s stupendous actors – Bridges breaks fully free of any Dude references here, instead gruff and grisly; Steinfeld and Damon add the right amount of emotional heft and straightforward logic, respectively – but also the Coen brothers’ total understanding of the source material and how to adapt it. There are touches of humor, like when Mattie has to share a bed with an elderly woman who steals the covers night after night, and an appreciation for the stark beauty of the West. Snow falling on dead trees has never looked more beautiful, and when covering dead bodies, more haunting.
Since there’s so much violence here, the PG-13 rating stands: There are shootouts, cut-off fingers, stabbings, splattered brains, a man being dragged behind a horse and a bloody scene where one character reaches into another’s mouth to check if his tongue has been severed. There’s also a pit full of sinister snakes; a variety of dead bodies, both hanging (you see the execution and its aftermath) and half-buried; tons of consumed whiskey; and some sexually charged banter between an older male character and Mattie, who more than holds her own.
For older teens – or parents, even – who have never seen a Western, “True Grit” is a respectable introduction, with fine performances and a message that’s about more than the blood involved in the film. Younger teens should definitely skip it, but for audiences that are mature enough both for the film’s violence and its morality, “True Grit” is a seriously good offering from the normally-not-so-serious Coen brothers. Congrats to them, and yay for us.