By Greg Elperin
Being a fan of Jeff Bridges, most of the Coen Brothers’ movies, and the original True Grit starring John Wayne, I had high hopes for this movie. And right from the beginning I can safely say it doesn’t disappoint.
True Grit follows Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl looking to avenge her father’s murder with the help of the hardened U.S. Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon). Our three unlikely protagonists set out to hunt down the killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) across the lawless Indian Territory that is now Oklahoma.
As you might have guessed the moment I said “young girl” or “Coen Brothers,” this isn’t a conventional western. True Grit is equal parts revenge drama and coming of age story, with as much focus on developing characters as on epic shootouts and bold feats of survival.
As The Social Network showed us last year, you don’t have to do anything extraordinary when you have a strong cast and smartly written dialogue. Fortunately, True Grit has both in spades and never features anything resembling Hollywood excess.
The cast is solid all around, but the two stand-outs are Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. Bridges’ character exemplifies the phrase “true grit,” and in even the calmest scenes he never lets you forget who he is or what he’s capable of. At the same time, he shows enough heart to make his character endearing.
The only drawback to his performance is that he mumbles through most of his lines in a gravelly tone that makes his dialogue a chore to understand. And for anyone who has seen the original, he simply is not as likable as John Wayne was.
But the absolute gem of this movie is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. She is everything a compelling heroine should be: quick-witted, realistically tough, and innocent without ever being naive. But, most importantly, she holds her own in a world of tough and dangerous men without ever feeling like an action movie stereotype.
The only real flaw with True Grit is that the Coen Brothers try to force too much strange comedy into the film, which often feels completely out of place. That aside, this is possibly the second best western of the last ten years after the stellar remake of 3:10 to Yuma. But maybe that’s just because lately great westerns have been few and far between.