A U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger set off on a manhunt accompanied by a 14-year-old girl in True Grit, a solid Coen brothers update of a John Wayne classic.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) still wears her hair in braids and isn’t old enough to drink coffee yet, but she takes it upon herself to make sure that Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the hired man who killed her father, is brought to justice. She arrives in town from her family farm to send her father’s body back to her mother, to settle up his affairs (which she does with aplomb and well-placed use of threats to sue) with a man her father bought horses from and then to hire a marshal to go after Chaney. She wants Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed drunk who, she’s been told, is dogged and quick with his gun. She also attracts the attention of a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also tracking the man. Neither man is thrilled when Mattie Ross declares her intention to join them on their hunt but, despite attempts to ditch her, they soon find that she’s a capable companion on the road. The grown men, on the other hand, have their issues. Rooster’s is a tendency to “confiscate” whatever whiskey he finds and LaBoeuf’s is his rather puffed up notion of himself. They may all have the same goals but the trio is constantly at odds with each other.
These three central performances are what keep your eyes glued to the screen throughout. Steinfeld hits all the right notes — she is believable both as precociously iron-jawed (she makes frequent reference to her lawyer and how he can help or hurt the person she is dealing with) and as a not-quite-adult girl. She might proclaim herself willing to shoot her father’s murderer herself if need be, but she also has a softhearted fondness for her horse and clearly a deep love for her father. She chastises Rooster for drinking and more or less calls LaBoeuf a ridiculous dandy, but she also offers to tell the men a ghost story when they are camped out in the territories.
Bridges’ Rooster is not an unfamiliar role — it is a tweaked version of his Bad Blake from Crazy Love, one with more bravado and more menace. All eye-patch and dirty long johns, he can mold Rooster to seem both broken-down one moment, unforgiving and dangerous the next.
Damon’s LaBoeuf is in some ways the more thankless of the three roles — he enters as the butt of jokes about his fancy spurs and his leather fringe (Mattie compares him to a rodeo clown). But we see some steel and a sense of justice beneath the bluster. Damon is able to keep the character from becoming a parody — an all-hat, no-cattle bumbler — so that his character’s arc is believable (at least within this Coen-created universe).
I like the classic Westerns but I love their updates — like 3:10 to Yuma — and their modern incarnations, like No Country for Old Men. True Grit is definitely a solid entry to this genre and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, from its opening moments to its final shot of a silhouette on a windy hill. The movie is lovely to look at and a joy to listen to — playfully archaic speech patterns, hoof steps and all.
True Grit’s only problem is its trailer — specifically the first trailer scored to Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” It has had me excited for the movie for weeks. And the movie lives up to it — exactly up to the promise of the trailer but it goes no further. Deadwood-ish dialogue (minus the profanity), that Coen brothers menace, characters who are characters — True Grit has all the pieces you’d look for in a smart new cowboy movie. But it doesn’t transcend. It delights but it doesn’t astound, it is satisfying but not wowing. It is very good but not great.
Still, very good makes this movie worth carving out time from your holiday schedule to see.
Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of Western violence including disturbing images. Written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (from a novel by Charles Portis), True Grit is an hour and 54 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Pictures. It opens on Wednesday, Dec. 22.