By the time the cameras rolled for True Grit in 1969, John Wayne was admittedly past his prime. Yet characteristically Wayne's career had been filled with as many peaks and valleys as the mountainous terrain that made up the landscape of his largely western filmography. Moreover, regardless of age, The Duke was still an icon.
And accordingly in director Henry Hathaway's adaptation of Charles Portis's novel that had been published merely a year earlier, Grit re-anchored the weight of the roles in the book to instead build a successful star vehicle for Wayne who garnered his first and only Oscar for his role as the tough, drunken U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn.
However, in what is easily the Coen Brothers most accessible and crowd-pleasing film to date, the fellas behind No Country for Old Men see fit to find room for a young woman with 2010's far more faithful take on Portis's prose.
Shifting the storyline away from the former's emphasis on the naturally scene-stealing Cogburn (this time played by Jeff Bridges fresh off of earning his own first Oscar), the Coens put it back squarely where it belongs, which is namely on the determined, willfully feisty and revenge driven fourteen-year-old girl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas looking for justice.
While the ruthless Cogburn may possess a legendarily infamous reputation for ample bloodshed and tracking down villains, when faced with a headstrong little girl, he's initially (and understandably) hesitant to take on this most unusual call to arms to locate and corral the man who senselessly murdered Mattie's father to the courthouse for hanging.
Yet once Matt Damon's dandified Texas Ranger chatterbox LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef) turns up hoping to claim the killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for his own, collecting a reward back in Texas where he's wanted for slaughtering a senator, the combination of greed and competition reignites the old Marshall's passion for pursuit.
While it's a structurally solid classic western picture, the Coens don't abandon their penchant for elaborate turns of phrase punctuated with dry humor or semantic based wit mixed in with harsh realities and surprising developments. And refreshingly, Joel and Ethan Coen's dedication to taking their time in acquainting us with the colorful personalities onscreen ensures that Grit's evolution into a riveting adventure film is achieved more organically though character-driven narrative.
Thus, only after a fair amount of screen time has passed does Cogburn finally set off on the mission, reluctant not just to have a long-winded arrogant lawman as a rival and riding partner but also to find his boss has shown up uninvited as Mattie boldly rides her horse across the river to journey into Indian territory with the men.
Employing their favorite device of literary narration, the Coens craft what on the surface seems to be a deceptively simplistic, wholly satisfying tale of nontraditional, battle-scarred, morally questionable heroes on a quest in the form of the two men who make up the “good guy” triangle.
And augmented by the gorgeous cinematography of The Assassination of Jesse James... and No Country lensman Roger Deakins, it's all so effective that -- only after the film ends – do you realize just how sophisticated and precise the entire process must've been from script to final cut, completely executed by the Coen Brothers who write and direct with their own names and edit with the pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes.
Additionally it's a terrific three-hander by the main actors including a very welcome offbeat turn by Matt Damon in his first Coen collaboration. Damon continuously offers us a kaleidoscope of new colors to LaBoeuf and while Bridges naturally aces his characterization of the tough old Rooster who becomes a fierce protector of Mattie, the true revelation of Grit is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.
Thematically and tonally, Steinfeld's turn as a daughter forced to grow up too quickly to seek truth and justice regarding her father and look out for her siblings is similar to the performance by another breakout star – Jennifer Lawrence – in the award-winning, acclaimed Winter's Bone.
And personally, while I feel that Steinfeld's age might find the Academy more apt to take the Tatum O'Neal Paper Moon supporting route, both young women are equally deserving of Oscar recognition in the Best Actress category for roles that truly challenge what we're used to seeing women their age tackle onscreen.
Easily the most fascinating, well-rounded and awe-inspiring female role that the Coens have written since Joel's wife Frances McDormand investigated a Midwestern kidnap-for-ransom gone wrong in their Oscar winning Fargo, in the end it's Mattie you'll remember the most as the epitome of what makes this Grit feel so incredibly True indeed.
Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I attended a free press screening of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.