“True Grit” stars Oscar winners Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, and it has been touted as a Best Picture nominee. The hoopla surrounding the stars and the picture is slightly misplaced, however: its brightest light is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, and the movie is a good but not great film. A remake of the 1969 film that won John Wayne his Oscar, this one is directed and produced by the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, the pride(s) of Minneapolis, who also adapted the screenplay from Charles Portis’s novel. It’s rated “PG-13,” but it’s borderline “R” for the level and consistency of the violence.
Given the original film’s familiarity, most of the adult audience may know the basic plotline. A young girl, Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), hires a U.S. Marshall, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges) to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who killed her father in a drunken rage. Two complications: Chaney has escaped into Choctaw territory, and he is also being pursued by a Texas Ranger (Damon) for a murder in Texas. Oh, and Cogburn, though an adept tracker and ruthless avenger, is also a literally falling down drunk.
Some of the film’s best scenes show Hattie’s determination in rounding up the necessaries for the hunt: horses, money, and manpower. A “close trader” like her father, she has the most trouble convincing Rooster that she will accompany him. (After all, her previous experience amounts to hunting raccoons and sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories.) Seinfeld and Bridges are delightful in their interchanges, the scruffy lawman matching with the determined teenager—and losing, verbally and physically.
They are joined by the blowhard Ranger, La Boeuf, with Damon barely recognizable and doing a nice turn in a diminished role, a bull shooter who also displays some gallantry. Like his fellow hunters, he eschews contractions, giving the dialogue a curious (and humorous) incompatibility with the characters and their environment. Indeed, Mattie, who constantly threatens lawsuits, is conversant with the legal Latinate palaver herself, adding to the character’s complexity and the film’s offbeat appeal.
This is a Western, but not one in the traditional, John Wayne vein. Set in post-Civil War Arkansas and Indian Territory, the movie does nothing to romanticize the Old West; indeed, it takes considerable pains to debunk various Western myths and stereotypes, mostly through the scruffy, scheming characters and the often amoral action. Only Mattie, with her strong sense of justice, comes off as righteous.
Parents looking to take their kids should know that there are some pretty scary moments involving corpses, shooting horses, and snakes. The script and setting justify the language, violence, and general unblinking realism, but it could get a little heavy for some youngsters. Adults, especially Coen fans like me, should enjoy it.