The Dude rides out.
Image: Paramount Pictures
The old west. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in town looking to hire a Marshal to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who murdered her father. She finds Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) a drunk who shoots first and asks questions later. Accompanied by cocky Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), they ride out in search of justice.
With its Western setting, promotional material booming that you can’t run from judgement, and the presence of Josh Brolin, it’s easy to compare this with the Coens’ recent, and multiple award-winning, adaptation of No Country for Old Men. Based on the novel by Charles Portis, rather than the John Wayne film, this is a much more traditional Western despite featuring much of the trademark Coen sensibility. The oddball, morbid sense of humour is present and correct, as are the shocking moments of sudden violence. However, it’s not as dark as some of their previous work would suggest.
True Grit is surprisingly funny. Early bartering between Mattie and a local businessman establishes her stubbornness and smarts and gets big laughs, while Rooster is introduced, heard but not seen, while refusing to vacate an outhouse. Much of the humour comes from LaBoeuf consistently losing verbal battles with Mattie before attempting to re-establish his dominance in the trio by one-upping Cogburn. This bickering trio make for surprisingly enjoyable company.
Bridges dons John Wayne’s eye-patch and adopts a sometimes incomprehensible drawl to play the drunken Rooster, and it’s a nice change to see him play tough rather than The Dude. He’s still loveable, but there’s a hard edge to the Marshal who has no problem shooting men in the back. Damon shows yet more range with the arrogant LaBoeuf, while Brolin gives a memorable turn when he appears late in the film as the hunted man. Much has been made of Steinfeld’s performance, and deservedly so. Plucky and precocious without ever being annoying, she essentially carries the film.
Most of the darkest moments in the film take place in front of Mattie. While she is affected by them, her pursuit of Chaney is of paramount importance to her. It’s often only the excited state in which she passes the bulk of chase which reminds us how young she is. The Coens take their usual approach to unnatural death, making it swift, unpredictable, and unpleasant. Bodies are left unceremoniously on the hard ground, as Rooster mutters, “Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer.”
The pacing is occasionally a little uneven and it’s a sometimes a little too by-the-numbers Western, but it’s a very entertaining thriller that rewards in unexpected ways. It’s more accessible than No Country for Old Men, though it perhaps lacks that film’s depth. However, the cast is great, it’s beautifully shot by Roger Deakins and it is tremendously entertaining.
Excellent performances and a rich seam of dark humour make this a film worth hunting down.