To call True Grit the best movie of 2011 may not be saying much at this point, but one suspects it may remain true for some time to come. Adapted by the Coen brothers straight from the Charles Portis novel on which the 1969 film was based, True Grit is a black comedy quoting a black comedy that was itself a revision of the cowboy myth at once affectionate and cynical.
The film is a tall tale with larger-than-life characters, an Odyssey of the West as O Brother, Where Art Thou was an Odyssey of the South, a delicious revenge fantasy set in a bleak, bloody, lawless world that bears (perhaps) some resemblance to late-19th century Fort Smith, Arkansas. Here, hangings are gala community events, everything has its price and people drive their bargains in a stilted, quasi-scriptural English, rife with long, archaic words (“depredations,” “remonstrate”) and short on contractions.
Into this world rides Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year old eccentric with a mind for business and a lust for revenge. She’s gunning for Tom Chaney (Brolin), the dimwitted sociopath who murdered her father and stole his horse. After settling her father’s financial affairs, displaying masterful horse-trading skills way beyond her years, Mattie strikes a deal to go after Chaney with the help of Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges).
Cogburn is an aging, overweight bounty hunter with “true grit” – a quality that seems mainly to involve a depraved indifference to human life, fueled by large quantities of alcohol. The two are joined by LaBoeuf (Damon), an earnest Texas Ranger who pronounces his name “LaBeef,” and the chase – into remarkably empty “Indian territory” – is on.
Bridges’ marvelous Rooster is an intricate blend of clownishness, brutality and heroism. In his second collaboration with the Coen brothers after The Big Lebowski, the Dude not only takes on but one-ups the Duke – John Wayne – whose 1969 rendering of Rooster, in comparison, comes off as one-dimensional and lacking the self-ironic quality essential to this character. In his boozy expansiveness, Bridges is the perfect foil for Mattie, whose brisk, frighteningly competent exterior masks some genuine vulnerability.
The movie is full of wonderful, darkly comedic turns, like Rooster’s initial interview with Mattie through the closed door of an outhouse, his booze-soaked stumbling through Indian country and the pratfalls from his horse. Even the most violent encounters have an over-the-top comic-book quality. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that a scene involving a man bleeding to death after having his fingers hacked off could be funny. But it is.
Yet the film’s tough, complicated characters are capable of surprising moments of genuine feeling, like when Mattie’s hardened façade momentarily crumbles. Or when Rooster is unexpectedly humanized by his fondness and respect for Mattie and her very own grittiness. Early in the film, he stares in dumbfounded admiration as she fords a deep river on horseback to avoid being left behind in the chase. Later, to get her to a doctor who can treat her rattlesnake bite, Rooster runs through the night with Mattie in his arms, radiating the anguish of an exhausted old man desperate to save something precious. It is the climactic scene of the movie, with Bridges riding across the Plains under the great, starlit Western sky, an American Erlkönig racing death in his one-time opportunity to redeem his depraved soul.
In the end, “true grit” boils down to possessing a profound capacity for the relentless pursuit of one goal. Mattie and Rooster live it all the way up. And in its single-minded quest to capture in one visually stunning, dramatically coherent package the beauty, barbarism and moral chaos of the Wild West, True Grit turns out to have exactly the quality that its title promises.
TRUE GRIT | Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (USA 2010) with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin. Opens February 24