Who doesn’t love a Western? I remember the first time I saw Sergio Leone’s epic masterpiece The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and being completely blown away. So many classics followed: the tense excitement of Pekinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the Newman/Redford chemistry in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and Val Kilmer’s deadly Doc Holliday willing to be anybody’s huckleberry in Wyatt Earp biopic Tombstone. They all show Westerns to be so much more than sticking up the bank and shootouts at high noon. But the crime and the peril of living hard in the wild west are nonetheless important; a true Western will incorporate both the story and the cliché, and I’m happy to report that the Coen brother’s gun-toting flick True Grit does so in spades.
I’ve not seen the original True Grit, the 1969 John Wayne vehicle that scooped an Oscar for The Duke, so I can’t compare, but jeez this movie is good. It tells the story of young Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl on the hunt for blood, willing to do anything to track down Tom Chaney, the varmint who done shot down her father in cold blood. She hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a US Marshall renowned for his meanness, or as Mattie so eloquently puts it when she hires him, ‘they say you got true grit.’
The grit is obvious throughout the movie: Bridges knocks it out of the park as Cogburn, a hard-drinking old coot who plays fast and loose with the law. And my god is he craggy. He is one craggy lawman. He mutters, curses, and he can still hit a bottle thrown into the air into a thousand pieces despite putting away his own body weight in moonshine. And did I mention the eyepatch? In this movie Bridges is captivating, charismatic and funny. After dispatching of two outlaws he leaves them to rot. Mattie cries out that he had promised to bury them. ‘Ground’s too hard,’ shoots back Cogburn. ‘Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves kilt in summer.’
An almost unrecognisable Matt Damon rounds out the trio as LaBeouf, a Texas Ranger who’s been following Chaney for months preceding Mattie’s father’s demise. Damon is surprisingly good in the unusual role of LaBeouf, a blowhard cop full of hot air, the antithesis of Bridges’ curmudgeonly Cogburn.
But the movie really belongs to Hailee Steinfeld, the young girl who shines as the detached, sharp and brave Mattie Ross. From spending a night alone (save for three corpses) in an undertakers’ to riding her horse fearlessly through rapids to catch up with Cogburn when he tries to ditch her, Mattie Ross proves herself to be spirited and one of a kind. Her no-nonsense plain speaking endears her to Cogburn yet alienates LaBoeuf; the audience learns that the ‘true grit’ Mattie seeks is already inside herself.
The story is captivating and well-paced, with Josh Brolin (as Chaney) and Barry Pepper doing solid turns in minor roles and adding depth to the story. As with any good Western, there’s loads of shooting and cussing. One particularly memorable scene has Cogburn in a death race against four members of the Lucky Ned Pepper gang, riding their horses closer to each other, shooting for all their might in a bizarre wild west version of Chicken. The excellent script provides opportunity for tension and laughs in equal measure; however there is a melancholic tone that pervades throughout, emphasised with some beautiful but unnerving cinematography (blank stares of Native American children; a hanged man in the forest). The direction is excellently-paced, giving all three leads the ability to shine.
The bittersweet coda will leave you still in your seat after the credits have rolled. You’ll not be wondering how it all ended, but rather why it all ended the way it did; ultimately, life is not wrapped up neatly after two hours. ‘You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another,’ says Mattie at the end. And whether or not that’s true, there’s no denying that those Coen boys really know how to string together a story.
Renee Tibbs is the current editor of upstart.