A teen girl hires a drunken US marshal to help her find the man who killed her father.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Hailie Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon
Review by Jon Kissel
Just because True Grit holds a bittersweet end for Mattie doesn’t mean it doesn’t love sending her on her way. In pursuit of justice for her murdered father, she has a list of tasks and the knowledge and confidence to get them done. True Grit might be at its best before anyone agrees to go anywhere, when it’s more concerned with the price of horses than shooting outlaws from the backs of them. Steinfeld turns in an incredible performance for someone her age, with her prior experience, standing toe to toe with icons and veterans with hundreds of credits. Watching her stride into general stores and liveries, knowing exactly what she’s there to accomplish and how to talk her way towards her goal, produces open-mouthed joy for this viewer. As adept as the film is at creating this pre-teen dynamo, it also understands that the trope of the kid who acts like an adult has long been played out, so the film’s first act includes scenes of Mattie alone, afraid to sleep in a funeral home despite her earlier insistences that she doesn’t care, and of her being unnerved by an execution. She’s a kid in the top percentile of her peer group, but she’s still a kid.
Despite Mattie being not much bigger than a corn nubbin, she assembles a posse to go after Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. Having her pick of US Marshals, she goes with Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), if for no other reason than his low rate of returning with his quarry alive and her desire to see Chaney dead. Bridges plays Cogburn as a mush-mouthed drunkard with minimal allegiance to the law. More bounty hunter than duly-appointed instrument of the court, we’re first introduced to him under cross-examination, caught in a self-aggrandizing lie where he claimed to shoot his bounty in a fair fight but in fact bushwhacked them from cover. The film is shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, and his signature shot might be Cogburn flinging cornbread in the air to demonstrate his accuracy. He’s shot from the bottom up against the big sky of the West, a heroic pose, but he’s drunk and he misses and for all the accoutrements of Americana, he’s also an absurd clown. Texas Ranger Laboeuf (Matt Damon) is the final leg of their trio, though he comes and goes when his feeling are hurt by too many jabs about his home state. A creeper and a dandy, Laboeuf and Cogburn go at it throughout their mission, leaving Mattie to watch in irritation as they challenge each other to petty demonstrations of skill.
Even in the company of men scarred by Civil War combat and the daily stresses of their chosen occupations, Mattie still hangs onto her childish enthusiasm for the adventure itself and for her perceived doling out of justice to Chaney. Her optimism persists despite a run-in with close-to-home violence, and it works as a metaphor for the frontier in general. It is indeed a beautiful place, where any spot of land could potentially be claimed and made into one’s home, but it’s also a place that cruelly commits the deeply-felt sin of cutting off a convicted Indian’s last words at the gallows, to no objection. She finds that righting this one particular wrong is going to incur a high body count, and the dignity of a burial isn’t afforded to people who, per Cogburn, were foolish enough to get themselves killed in winter.
Maddie’s loudest demand is that Chaney pay for the specific crime he committed against her, but for Cogurn and Laboeuf, justice is doled out at the behest of who can pay the most. Chaney’s got a bigger bounty on him in Texas, so that’s where he’s going to be taken, to Maddie’s great disapproval. She never changes her companions’ minds, and they may have missed him altogether if not for a happenstance run-in in a creek that ends with her kidnapped by Chaney and the gang he’s now running with. In the end, perhaps because she knows he won’t stand trial for the murder of her father or perhaps because she imagines herself as the righteous executioner, she kills Chaney at point-blank range, sending her tumbling down a mine shaft crawling with snakes. She’s given no time to celebrate her victory, and instead spends the rest of her time with Cogburn in and out of consciousness from a snakebite, coherent for the traumatic murder of her horse but not for Cogburn leaving her in the hands of a doctor. The film’s final scene is adult Mattie at Cogburn’s grave, having never seen him again after their adventure. True Grit frames this episode in her life as an important one, due to the loss of her arm, but also an unsatisfactory one lacking in true catharsis.
True Grit opens with adult Mattie giving a monologue, not unlike the beginning of No Country for Old Men. Her speech ends with ‘you must pay for everything in this world,’ and while it seems initially that she’s referring to Chaney, she’s also talking about herself. The price of her justice was a piece of her body, and though she proceeded to have a good life, her taking of vengeance leaves a mark on her forever after. I need my Westerns to not conform to a falsified good-evil dichotomy that doubles as whitewashing and propaganda. True Grit, already in peak technical and emotional form, satisfies this requirement by making things cost. For Mattie/America, if you want this thing i.e. a sinner’s life or a vast expanse of a continent that’s already been settled, you are going to have to pay and you’re going to wear the price on you. Even when they’re pleasing crowds with sloppy Jeff Bridges and rousing scores set to horseback gun battles, the Coen’s are subverting the genre they’re playing in. These guys have been in complete control of their craft for decades, and True Grit is one more expert demonstration of their endless talents. A