What would a normal 14 year old in the late 1800s do upon finding out her father was murdered by a scoundrel and a thief? Mattie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld) is no ordinary 14 year old. She takes the train into Fort Smith to deal with her father’s body and stays back – determined to avenge his death. A poised and fearless young woman (having run out of money, she spends the night at the undertaker’s with 4 dead bodies!) with rapier sharp wits, she manages to recoup some of the money owed her father. Mattie also finds out that US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is her man for tracking the murderer Tom Cheney who has fled into the Indian Territory. One eyed, overweight, aging and permanently drunk and disheveled Cogburn is Mattie’s choice, she tells him, because she has heard he has TRUE GRIT and never lets go of a fugitive. Rooster agrees to take on the mission for $100, and after trying to evade Mattie by sneaking out ahead of her, allows her to come along when she catches up with him. They are joined by Texas Ranger LeBoef (Matt Damon) who is also hunting Tom Cheney, for a senator’s murder in Texas. The grit and patience of each of the three fellow travelers is severely tested along this journey into the wilderness and we see the men gaining a grudging respect for the young girl as she more than holds her own on the trail. The ending is more true to the book than it was in the 1969 version of the film. This Coen brothers’ adaptation of the book by Charles Portis is a somber tale that lacks some of the humor and crackling interactions we saw between the leads in the 1969 film. But it also has much less of the coyness and sugar that came in ample measure in the older version. The role of Rooster Cogburn won John Wayne his only Oscar and a memorable role it was! In the 2010 adaptation Jeff Bridges is as good as he can get, which is pretty darn good, but somehow the telling falls just short of all time greatness.
The show is stolen by Hailee Steinfeld – she has a poise and innocent charm coupled with a fierce determination, that makes her one of the more memorable characters in recent films. Matt Damn is more than adequate as a stiff necked Texas Ranger, who slowly goes from boorish to serious and dependable. Jeff Bridges is great as Rooster Cogburn, “a one eyed fat drunk man who cannot shoot straight anymore”, because he does show true grit and more, a strong sense of justice and an innate nobleness. John Wayne’s iconic persona was utilized fully in the 1969 film by Hathaway, and here the Coen brothers find a persona that matches the Duke’s in stature. Bridges brings a loose limbed laziness to his Cogburn, and yet manages, even at his most whiskey soaked moments, to convey a sense of urgency and sharp wit that is required to make the character work.
The film is wonderfully shot on location in Texas with sweeping vistas, bleak forests in fall and winter, and seemingly endless plains. The Coen Brothers go fully mainstream in this film, finally producing one that has the violence mostly reined in (well some guys do die and fingers are chopped off too), and none of the language or situations containing being anything less than family friendly. But what makes this a winner is the remarkable young woman on a quest to see a criminal brought to justice. No simpering miss, she stands tall among leading ladies, as a sharp witted and brave character, honorable and just with all the good qualities that we often find lacking in the world today.
This one is a certified winner and not to be missed.