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True Grit is the rare movie that casts its spell almost purely through the power of its dialogue. Barry Pepper spoke of it as “Hillbilly Shakespeare” in a recent interview with Spinoff Online, and he’s not wrong. There’s a rhythm to each line’s delivery, an inelegant, almost improvisational sort of poetry that immediately captures the attention and keeps its hold until after the credits roll. It also doesn’t hurt that the adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel is the latest effort from Joel and Ethan Coen, two of the most creative voices in cinema today, or that they’ve got the likes of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and surprisingly solid young newcomer Hailee Steinfeld leading the charge.
For those who aren’t familiar with the novel, or the 1969 film adaptation starring John Wayne, True Grit is a genre-breaking Western about Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), a young girl who enlists two government gunmen to aid in her search for the man who killed her father. She is a driven young girl, startlingly intelligent for a 14 year old and as liberated a woman as you’re likely to find today.
Mattie’s companions are equally colorful, though they mix together like oil and water. On the one hand you’ve got Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), a so-called “man of true grit,” rough around the edges and frequently drunk, but quick with a gun, quicker with a clever plan and completely without fear. Then there’s La Boeuf (Damon) – that’s pronounced “la beef” – an arrogant Texas Ranger who likes to run his mouth about his many accomplishments and the hardships he faces as a lawman on the edge of the desert. Rooster isn’t exactly a man of quiet contemplation, but he says what he means always and he’s got no time for the bluster and double talk he gets from the Texan.
Tonally at least, the book and the Coen film are one. Both tellings of the story unfold from Mattie’s perspective. This is her adventure. There’s a magical quality to the way events unfold, a sense of wonder and discovery that accompanies the hard-riding, rough-living lifestyle of a cross-country chase through the Wild West. Credit Steinfeld for finding the soul of her character in the Coens’ script, which borrows dialogue liberally from Portis’ novel. As smart and as savvy as Mattie is, she’s still just a child. Things get plenty serious, and Mattie’s attitude is no-nonsense every time, but Steinfeld still manages to inject the right amount of childlike wonder into the film’s quieter moments. She’s playing a grown-up game, but she’s still a kid at heart.
Riding along with her for most of the adventure is Bridges’ Cogburn. Unlike John Wayne, who carried a persona with him into every role he played, Bridges is a chameleon. He excels at immersing himself in a performance, and here he is nearly unrecognizable behind the eyepatch, long, filthy hair, unkempt beard and giant belly. He’s lived hard, leaned too heavily on the smoke and the drink, and you can hear it in his voice. Bridges’ line delivery is difficult to decipher sometimes between the gravelly, broken voice and uneducated pattern of speech, but he’s brilliant. This is a career high for the actor, a total transformation.
Matt Damon’s La Boeuf is harder to pin down. It’s a tough character to capture; behind all of the arrogance there’s actually a sharp-minded tracker and gunfighter. You get a sense of these things in the book, but the sibling filmmakers actually dialed down La Boeuf’s presence in this adaptation as compared to the Portis novel or even the 1969 film. He never quite meshes with his traveling companions until the end, and so he has a tendency to leave Mattie and Rooster to their hunt. Since we spend all of our time in the film with Mattie, it’s harder to get a sense of La Boeuf. Damon is a talented performer, one who shares Bridges’ knack for disappearing into a role. He does his job well, but the La Boeuf in the Coens’ telling of this story just isn’t characterized well.
It’s a problem that really runs throughout the film. This telling of True Grit is very much focused on the Mattie/Rooster relationship. It makes sense in the context of the larger story, but any character other than those two tends to suffer. Damon is the most obvious example, but supporting stars Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper also get a little short-changed. Brolin plays Tom Chaney, the man who killed Mattie’s father, while Pepper takes the role of “Lucky” Ned Pepper, a gang leader whom Chaney has taken up with. In both the book and the movie neither really shows up until the final act, but the book offers a much deeper portrait of these characters. Hints of that shine through in the dialogue pulled from Portis’ text, but not enough. There’s no such thing as a one-dimensional character in a Coen brothers film, but this pair falls awfully close.
If there’s anything to complain about in the Coens’ telling of True Grit, it’s the quality of the adaptation. Some tweaks were made in the script to strengthen the focus on the Mattie/Rooster relationship. While it’s understandable given the arc of the story, it’s a shame that audiences don’t get to see the rest of the characters in this world – and La Boeuf, Chaney and Pepper in particular – as the complicated thinking people that they are. Instead we get characterizations that offer a bit more meat than genre archetypes, but not enough. Is it fair to get down on the movie for not skewing close enough to the book? Perhaps not, but the richness and depth of the story does suffer somewhat with its narrowed focus on Mattie and Rooster.
Look. There’s no such thing as a bad Coen brothers movie. Even their worst film is better than 90% of what gets released each year. And True Grit is by no means their worst. It is an enchanting adventure through an America that no longer exists, one populated by colorful characters and beautiful locations. The lyrical quality of the dialogue alone will be enough to grab your attention and keep it for the entire running time. Those who read the book should walk in expecting a slightly different experience, but don’t let that deter you. True Grit stands as one of the strongest films of 2010 and a must-see for any fans of the brothers Coen.
True Grit is currently playing in theaters nationwide.