True Grit is the latest movie from the Coen brothers, and their best since No Country for Old Men. It convinces me that they should stick to movies that are not comedic in structure but simply in tone; this is a revenge story layered with dark humor, but the characters and the situations are always, usually literally, deadly serious. The story is told from the point of view of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who sets out to bring her father’s murderer to justice in frontier Arkansas. She hires the toughest, roughest, most ruthless U.S. Marshall in Fort Smith (Jeff Bridges) and insists on accompanying him into Indian territory on his hunt. They run up against an uptight Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) who wants to bring the man back to Texas for trial. It becomes a battle of wills and endurance to see who has the courage and tenacity to take Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) dead or alive…to see who has the true grit.
This was one of those rare movies that I didn’t walk out with much to say in the way of criticism, at least not in the sense of talking about what they could have done better. Simply put, they couldn’t have done better. It was one of those films that leaves you completely satisfied when you leave; it’s like a thick steak, cooked exactly to order, when most movies–especially big studio movies–are cafeteria-style hamburgers. Not so bad, and sometimes exactly what you’re in the mood for, but ultimately ephemeral enjoyment, easily forgotten and often transmuted to an upset stomach after it has time to settle. Not so True Grit. It was also not one of the Coen brother’s narrow-focus comedies that are simply too esoteric for an average audience to enjoy; this movie is entirely accessible.
It is rated PG-13, and while I would not flinch at showing it to my (hypothetical) kid, I walked out surprised to see that rating on the poster, due to the violence in the film. It’s not that the killings or the one (relatively brief) torture scene are particularly gory or dwelt upon, but the violence was not pulled in order to get a lower rating. There is also not the cliche moral “redemption” at the end, when any of the characters realize that taking revenge is patently wrong or would lower them to the level of the man they hunt. Events are left to play themselves out in action, without such hand-wringing on the part of anyone involved, and the film is better for it.
The characters here are wonderful. Jeff Bridges made a fabulous gravel-voiced, one-eyed, whiskey-swilling and washed-up Marshall, and Matt Damon more than held his own as the priggish Ranger. But Hailee Steinfeld stole the show from both of them, for the simple fact that she had the hardest part of all: playing a 14-year-old girl, half-child and half-woman, who can talk, swindle, and bully grown men twice her age and three times her size into doing what she wants, and that girl took that part and she sold it. I did not for one moment doubt the strength of her will or the force of her personality. The dialogue was full of the usual Coen gems of incongruous words from the mouths that speak them, although here it sounded more like the speech patterns used on Deadwood–archaic and formal to our ears now but suited to the time. I will watch this movie many times in the future specifically for the characters and their speeches; I expect the movie will grow funnier the more I see it, the same way that No Country for Old Men and Fargo both did. It has that sort of mood, where it is grim with moments of humor upon the initial viewing but will become a dark comedy with repeat watchings.
In short, True Grit met or perhaps even exceeded my expectations for it. It takes its place in the welcome stable of new, truly gritty Westerns alongside gems like The Proposition and Appaloosa. A must-see for anyone who likes Westerns, revenge stories, dark comedies, or any of the actors involved.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.