If there have been feistier, more fiercely determined 14-year-olds in the history of cinema, they probably couldn’t match the intelligence and zeal of Mattie Ross in “True Grit.” In an astonishing film debut, Hailee Steinfeld stars as the never-say-never youngster on a mission to avenge her father’s death in this Coen Brothers’ film, the second adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel of the same name. Her dogged, fiery resolve runs through all of “True Grit,” giving the film a continuous, headlong energy.
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The film begins in an accurate, if somewhat clichéd, Old West community, complete with saloons, cowboys and a cheesy soundtrack. Mattie has come to the Arkansas town from her family’s farm to settle her father’s affairs and find the man who murdered him, Tom Chancey (Josh Brolin, “No Country For Old Men”). This is a tall order for a teenage girl, but it’s clear that Ross is up to the task. From her negotiations with her lawyer and a local businessman, we see that she is independent and capable — more than equal to her self-imposed mission.
She enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”), a trigger-happy, one-eyed U.S. Marshal known for his ruthlessness and love of whiskey. Bridges slips into this role with ease, completely inhabiting the character as if he were made to play him. Mattie, believing this rough-and-tumble cowboy to be her best bet for bringing Chancey to justice, attempts to hire him and, after much resistance, succeeds.
But Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, “The Informant”), who has his own reasons for catching Chancey, tries to latch onto their group. LaBoeuf is equal parts tough lawman and bumbling fool, which Mattie doesn’t hesitate to point out. To Mattie’s chagrin, Cogburn and LaBoeuf decide to join forces, but their differences lead to constant, humorous quarreling and who’s-the-bigger-man contests.
Unfortunately, much of the time spent in the town is setup or character development, but once the setting shifts, there is an immediate shift in tone. In the wilderness, the constant feeling of imminent danger lends the film a certain tension that it lacks in the tamer city setting.
Much of the film’s middle third features the three characters on horseback. This could become tiresome, but the brilliance of the main characters and the actors’ performances sustain it, even through these mostly actionless sequences. But that’s not to say “True Grit” lacks action — the film contains the Coen Brothers’ requisite violence and suspense, with a few horse chases and stand-offs to boot.
But for all the technical elements in the film, it’s the characters’ complexity that ultimately holds it up. Though Mattie’s toughness is what immediately draws the audience in, her vulnerability is the most endearing part of her character, and her innocence contrasts nicely with the coarseness of Cogburn and LaBoeuf. But their characters have more to offer, too — both show moments of heroism that reveal compassion beneath their hardened exteriors.
The movie is also beautifully photographed. Roger Deakins, the Coens’ regular cinematographer, captures the splendor of the mountains and forests of the landscape, while also highlighting its unforgiving bleakness.
Although “True Grit” is one of the Coen Brothers’ most accessible films — featuring a traditional narrative and archetypal characters — the movie bursts with life and energy. Rarely is a dull moment in sight. While it may not receive the artistic accolades of some of the Coens’ previous films, this relentlessly entertaining film is a more than respectable entry in their impressive oeuvre.