True Great Trio Glows with Genuine Wit
By Jacob Walters ’14, Staff Writer
Just when it seemed that the Western was more irrelevant than ever, leave it to the Coen Brothers to prove otherwise. Displaying their aptness for trying new things and their perfect grasp of tone, they deliver a thoroughly compelling, steady-handed, well-acted, late-year kick to what may, unfortunately, be the worst year for film in quite a while. Although not traditional Oscar fair, “True Grit” offers an expertly-constructed tale of revenge that simultaneously holds true to the essence of the West and manages to subvert it.

To boil the story down, “True Grit” is the story of Mattie Ross’ (Hailee Steinfeld) quest for vengeance upon Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for killing her father. While she is courageous and capable, especially for a 14-year-old girl, capturing a well-known and ruthless criminal is a bit beyond her skill, which leads her to search for a man capable of handling the heavier lifting, a man with true grit.

To fill this role, Mattie finds Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a U.S. Marshall known for his effectiveness and beyond this, his toughness. Along with La Boeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger seeking Chaney for an unrelated crime, he begins his search minus the, in his eyes, too young Ross. Proving otherwise, she joins the ragtag group on the war path in search of Chaney.

“True Grit” is a genre picture, through and through. A Western, a revenge tale and a buddy film, “True Grit” eschews sermonizing or thematic depth for good old-fashioned storytelling and characterization, and the results are refreshing. This is perhaps the ultimate case this year for why genre films can be fun and can contain expert filmmaking on par with any seemingly more complex and dramatic films. Impeccably designed and scripted, “True Grit” is atmospheric, funny, clever, exciting, dark, suspenseful and scary. The tone of the movie is at just the right middle ground between humorous and serious. Although a constant air of humor is present (most of it of the gallows variety), it never becomes campy or silly.

The acting is top-notch all around, with Jeff Bridges providing a strong performance in the role which most associate with “True Grit” and which, considering his recent Oscar win, will likely draw the biggest audience to the film. In his hands, Rooster Cogburn (what a name) is a larger-than-life but complex figure who, while largely humorous in demeanor, never comes off as a joke. As Texas Ranger La Boeuf, Matt Damon marries his hilarious Matthew McConaughey impersonation with another perfectly balanced character to create a match for Cogburn, who is taken seriously but also poked fun at. Josh Brolin is solid during his few scenes in the movie, but his role in the film is fairly minimal despite being the impetus for Ross, Cogburn, and La Boeuf’s journey. The more level-headed but equally fearsome “Lucky” Ned Pepper, played by Barry Pepper, actually serves as the movie’s truest foe, with Tom Chaney seeming more like a relatively loyal but loose cannon right-hand man.

Despite the quality on display elsewhere, the performance is Hailee Steinfeld as the wise-beyond-her-years Mattie. Determined, capable and blessed with a wicked tongue, she is perhaps the quintessential Western hero wrapped up in the body of a 14-year-old girl. Of course, the key here is that we never lose sight of the fact that she is a 14-year-old girl. Her innocence shines through, and it is this layered portrayal that creates a character who could easily be described as kick-ass without seeming unrealistic or over-the-top like the young girl in the movie which bears that adjective as its title. She’s a human being, an exceptional and abnormal one, but a human being regardless, and, if anything, “True Grit” proves that talent doesn’t necessarily require experience.

Perhaps the best element of the film is the interplay between the characters, as it is both witty and insightful. It pokes fun at the West and the characters found within it. The theme is built into the characters, be it the 14-year-old girl who is set on revenge and is fully capable of holding her own verbally with anyone, or the sheriff renowned for his grit who takes the form of an old, cantankerous man. An early scene with Rooster features him in court, simultaneously hinting at his ruthlessness and effectiveness at killing and displaying him as woefully incapable of handling himself in front of the prosecutor. La Boeuf’s naïve respect for his company, the Texas Rangers, is poked fun at by Cogburn as well, and La Boeuf concocts a number of humorously lame but clever-minded retorts.

“True Grit” works. It’s an unassuming film which may struggle to find an audience due to existing in a void between a more violent action movie and a slower-paced, more character-focused film, but the mix works perfectly. As a Western, “True Grit” harkens back to the simplistic but brawny storytelling which highlights films of old while it provides a subtle commentary on the characters typically present in Westerns, never letting either element steal the glory of the other. As a revenge tale, the film is expertly paced and exciting, giving us enough reason to care about the characters and their quest and while capturing the right tone to keep the film serious but not depressing or lacking fun. And, as a buddy film, we have plenty of clever, light-hearted but acid-tongued dialogue between the trio, who are all necessarily flawed but entirely amusing and likeable. Simply put, “True Grit” is one of the year’s best films.

Issue 12, Submitted 2011-01-26 01:21:09