Imagine, if you will, that the American Western never went out of style. Every year, since the genre pulled out of the “pulp” categorization of the 1930s, we were hit with classic Westerns the same way we see the release of action, horror, or romantic comedy films. Actors could make their living playing little else but cowboys, like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood when the style was in vogue. Now imagine how all the revolutions in cinema could have impacted the form and style of the Western. All of the experimental international cinema, the sensationalized to the point of desensitizing violence, the low-budget independent character study–imagine they all informed the Western.
If all of that had happened in history, I think we would have seen a lot more films like the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit. Based on the novel by Charles Portis that led to John Wayne’s Oscar-winning role in the 1969 film of the same name, the film is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. The few differences are so minute that they are a matter of interpretation of the material. The Coen Brothers tipped their hats toward building empathy rather than more ambiguous motivations.
True Grit, in the novel and new film, is the story of one Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl attempting to get justice for the cold-blooded murder of her father. While he was out on business, he had the misfortune of running into notorious outlaw Tom Chaney, who shot him dead over a horse and fled into Choctaw territory. Mattie hires US Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn to track down Chaney because of his reputation for bringing an outlaw back dead rather than alive. She insists on traveling into the dangerous territory with Rooster Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (pronounced LaBeef) to make sure her contract is handled properly.
When the original True Grit was made, it was very rare to have a female protagonist in a Western about justice. She may have been the love interest, the school teacher, a dancer, or a Madame, but very rarely became actively involved in the big action scenes of the film. Young Mattie was relegated to the plucky sidekick role in the original film so often inhabited by children in spite of the source material telling the entire story from Mattie’s perspective. She is not a reactionary character; she is the instigator, the boss, and the young woman pulling the strings over the entire operation. Everything that happens in the story happens because of Mattie and her quick wit. While the humor may not be as blunt as the original (where everything stemmed off of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn being a drunken lech), the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit manages to capture the drier humor of the novel without sacrificing the innocence and rapid maturation of the young principal player.
As Mattie Ross, Hailee Steinfeld does a fine job. Her dialog is all very proper, with no contractions and plenty of large legal terms to spout out in rapid succession. It would be a tricky role for an older actor, let alone one who is only fourteen years old. Steinfeld slowly reveals layers of her character throughout the running time. Whereas another child actor might have been told to toughen up throughout the feature to make an easier arc, Steinfeld becomes more vulnerable as she gains confidence in the physical aspects of riding through Choctaw territory. Mattie can no longer rely on her quick mind alone when faced with murderers, robbers, and other outlaws and Steinfeld makes it quite clear that is the case.
The rest of the ensemble does good work. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn like a realistic drunk; his alcoholism is never distracting and he, too, adds much needed depth to the renegade marshal he portrays. Matt Damon as LaBoeuf is the comic relief of the film, convincingly put in his place every time he steps out of line, but charming regardless of the offense or mistake. The gang of villains are all appropriately menacing and never cast doubt on how these men can avoid the law so long; they are cunning criminals, or at least their gang leaders are.
While True Grit can be viewed as the modern evolution of the Western, I have one large sticking point with the film. Other than the female lead, does it actually bring anything new to the genre? I don’t think it does. It is a beautifully crafted Western, but all the elements (sans the female cowboy figure) have been done many times before. I think the film would have worked pretty well with some very minor tweaks to change Mattie into Matty, a twelve year old boy setting out on his own to get revenge for the murder of his father. Replace “young lady” with “boy” and you have a Western that has been done again and again. This is, in essence, a very slick Western. It may be smarter than your average foray into Oklahoma territory, but it follows the same beats and arcs you expect in this kind of story.
Is that a bad thing? It all depends. I am not the biggest Western fan but I enjoyed myself in the theater. A few hours later, however, the scenes were not nearly as vivid in my mind as most other well-made films I see. It’s solid and enjoyable, but I’m not sure it’s particularly memorable. If you like Westerns or the Coen Brothers, you’ll probably like True Grit. If not, it’s probably safe to avoid the film if you aren’t particularly drawn in by the trailer.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.