True Grit

Movie Information

The Story: A young girl, a drunken U.S. Marshal and a self-satisfied Texas Ranger pursue the murderer of the girl's father into Indian Territory. The Lowdown: A stunner of an entertaining movie from the Coen Brothers -- one of their best and one of the best films of the year.
Genre: Western/Drama
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Rated: PG-13

The Coen Brothers’ True Grit is less a remake of the 1969 Henry Hathaway film with John Wayne than it is a completely new film based on Charles Portis’ novel, more a literary adaptation than a cinematic remonkeying. The stories are more or less the same, but everything about the Coen film feels fresh, new and, yes, unmistakably a Coen Brothers picture. It’s also one of the best films of the year, and almost certainly the best-looking one. And it just may surprise some folks, because while it’s clearly the Coens’ work, it is in no way revisionist—except perhaps as concerns revising the material back to the source. In most respects, what they’ve made here is something startlingly like a traditional Western. For the Coens, that may be viewed as radical.

It’s impossible, of course, not to compare this True Grit to the Hathaway film, since it’s so well known. First of all, the casting here couldn’t be more different. Hathaway gave us (or was saddled with) a hammy John Wayne, a wooden Glen Campbell and an inept Kim Darby. The Coens give us a shrewdly underplaying Jeff Bridges, a deceptively simple Matt Damon and a pitch-perfect newcomer, Hailee Steinfeld, who, unlike Darby, is the right age for the character of Mattie Ross. Stylistically, Hathaway gave us what amounted to an old-fashioned Hollywoodized movie, broadly played and energetic, but lacking in any real depth. The Coens give us a more subtle, dryly humorous film with an undercurrent of darkness.

The story, as noted, is largely the same. Fourteen-year-old Mattie sets out to avenge the murder of her father by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has run away into Indian Territory. Apprised of the fact that she needs a U.S. Marshal to pursue him there, she hires—mostly against his will—the surly, drink-sodden, one-eyed and downright mean Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) for the job. Alarming the family lawyer (bonus points for viewers who recognize the unbilled actor providing the voice-over for the lawyer) and out-maneuvering the adults, Mattie is single-minded in her quest. This much is the same, but the tone is different (Rooster is introduced to us as a gravelly, ill-tempered voice from inside an outhouse). There’s a real menace here and more than a little gothic ghoulishness to it all.

Where lesser filmmakers would have traded on Mattie’s pluck and cute-factor, the Coens keep her a grimly determined, unrelentingly dour presence—a kind of pint-sized force of Protestant righteousness. (A great deal of Carter Burwell’s score is grounded in old hymns, reinforcing Mattie’s mind-set, notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm,” which film fans will recognize from Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), which was certainly what the Coens had in mind.) Mattie is played straight with Cogburn, and the movie-cowboy Texas Ranger who forces himself on the party, LaBoeuf (Damon), fills the position of an endlessly bickering comedy team. And amazingly, it all works, coming together into a wholly satisfying film experience.

While the Coens—and their usual (since Barton Fink in 1991) cinematographer Roger Deakins—can be relied on for stunning visuals, True Grit may well be the most beautiful of all their films. Yet at the same time, there are fewer of the elaborate camera flourishes here than are found in many of their films. This is more a film grounded in composition than camera movement—and it fits the tone and the genre in which they’re working. The results are a film I find hard to fault on any level. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of Western violence, including disturbing images.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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24 thoughts on “True Grit

  1. Ken Hanke

    Which has rendered it ineligible for an Oscar nod.

    Well, there’s not a lot of original music, but damned if you can’t tell who did it.

  2. dingey

    I first read “True Grit” a few years ago after flipping my lid over Charles Portis’ “Dog of the South” (which may well be the funniest damned novel ever written). “True Grit” was a mindboggler, one of those works of art that stands alone not only in comparison to the work of other writers, but even in comparison to the rest of Portis’ output (which, by the way, is all great reading). The BOOK “True Grit” is full of darkness, wit, and a peculiar ramrod-spined lyricism that is unlike anything else you’ll ever read. The whole time I was working my way through the novel, I steamed about how sorely Hollywood had treated Mr. Portis’ material with that clunky John Wayne movie and its aggravatingly “aw she’s kinda cute under all that guff ain’t she” depiction of Maddie, who is, without reservation, the most prickly, un-cute girl-child character in all of American literature. I was geeked when i heard that the Coens were going to take a stab at “True Grit.” Who better to capture the weird humor and thorny characterizations of this odd, odd novel? I’m so glad to hear from my most trusted movie critic that this isn’t one of those rare Coen misfires. Are the movie theater parking lots around here lousy on Christmas Eve day, too? I’m busting to see this.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Are the movie theater parking lots around here lousy on Christmas Eve day, too?

    As a rule, no. I was at The Carolina yesterday, which is when it and that Focker…thing opened, and it wasn’t bad at all. I doubt it would be much worse on Christmas Eve day.

  4. Hal

    I loved this movie. Knew it had to be MUCH better than the John Wayne-Kim Darby-Glenn Campbell version, and wasn’t disappointed. All the pieces come together nicely, especially the acting and cinematography. I found myself quite moved by the (I think) penultimate scene [SPOILER], with Rooster and Mattie riding on horseback through the night, and Mattie’s reaction to the death of Little Blackie.

    Surely this will become a modern classic in the genre?

  5. Big Dog

    I think it’s sad the girl doesn’t find her dad before he dies in the end.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I think it’s sad the girl doesn’t find her dad before he dies in the end.

    What movie did you see anyway?

  7. dingey

    Hal, I lost it bad enough during that scene that I need to see the movie again to get the full impact of the amazing snow/stars visuals that were going on.

    Loved it. Anybody who enjoys the movie should still check out the novel itself for a more expanded version. The book has at least a hundred and one cranky and hilarious narrative digressions by Mattie that could never be translated to film…..

  8. Bengi

    Lawyer Daggett’s voice was, I think, someone who has acted in a couple of other Coen brothers’ films.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Lawyer Daggett’s voice was, I think, someone who has acted in a couple of other Coen brothers’ films

    Yes, but who?

  10. Ken Hanke

    Hal wins the bonus points. I have no idea what he can do with them, but they’re his.

  11. luluthebeast

    Excellent movie, so much better than the first one, and as dingey said, the visuals were superb

  12. chalkbox

    This was a fun movie. It moves faster than the previews would lead you to believe. I really enjoyed Jeff Bridges, even when his voice cracked from the husky drunkard on the witness stand, into “The Dude” when the defense lawyer had his storied pinned. Great movie with lots of likeable characters with the exception of Josh Brolins well played creepy Tom Chaney.

  13. kjh.childers

    Might I offer a recommendation to the Coen Brothers? Different from the Coen-usuals, of course, …but brillance of Bridges falters at times with his voice, only to be saved by the fire-cracker wit of our heroine … and well, Matt Damon as a Tejas Ranger?? Me wife liked him … he was no Eli Wallach GB&theU;!!

  14. Me

    I just saw this and liked it, but dingey is right i really wish they would have done Dog of the South instead.

  15. golden sin

    I saw it last week. I just loved it. I’d go back and see it again. The girl was so fun to watch. And Jeff Bridges. Good god that man can act! He does all those grunts and groans and it’s just so funny. I didn’t like Matt Damon’s character as much as the other two. I particularly like the scene when they met the dentist in the woods with the bear on his head! HA HA!

  16. Ken Hanke

    Does that mean you understand why I say the cinematography Oscar “belongs” to Roger Deakins?

  17. I do, although a win for Pfister wouldn’t upset me.

    I am now mystified by Steinfeld’s categorization as a ‘Supporting Actor’, for a film in which she plays the main character and is all but one scene. She probably deserves the Best Actress Oscar, although I’m rather of your opinion that getting it this young would ruin her life.

    I have to say I like Bridges in this better than Firth in THE KING’S SPEECH. Maybe the Academy got 2011 and 2010 mixed up?

  18. Ken Hanke

    She probably deserves the Best Actress Oscar, although I’m rather of your opinion that getting it this young would ruin her life.

    To me, it’s a hard call, and it becomes harder with no performance to compare it against where this is concerned. That, of course, is true of any first time performer, regardless of age.

    I have to say I like Bridges in this better than Firth in THE KING’S SPEECH.

    That’s going a little too far for me.

  19. Michael OFarrell

    I concur with Ken Hanke that “True Grit” may well be the most beautiful looking movie of 2010. On top of that it is a stunningly acted, directed, edited, sound recorded and scored picture: indeed, it has all the elements The Academy likes to bestow awards on a film, including Best Picture. I’d love to see the movie win the top prize but I’m pretty sure the victor will be The Social Network”.

  20. Jim Donato

    Your reference to “Night of the Hunter” is spot on. We just watched and loved this last night and all I could think of when Rooster was spiriting Mattie to safety at the end was “Night Of The Hunter.” It’s been so long since I’ve seen “Hunter” that I didn’t recognize the musical references you speak of, but the tone and visuals immediately came to mind.

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