True Grit

The 2010 version of True Grit (iTunes versionicon) earned ten Academy Award nominations – winning none, so I hope it truly is an honor just to be nominated, otherwise the Coen brothers must be really pissed off – which accurately reflects the quality of the acting, the screenplay, and the visuals. It’s also an unusually mainstream film for the Coens, who seem to specialize in cult favorites or films that garner more acclaim from critics than at the box office. I enjoyed the film more for its critical aspects than for the story, and would rank it as above-average but have a hard time pushing myself to call it plus.

Mattie Ross is a 14-year-old girl whose father was robbed and murdered by a hired hand named Tom Chaney, who subsequently fled into the Indian Territories (now constituting the bulk of Oklahoma) to escape arrest. Mattie, ostensibly in a frontier town to collect her father’s body and belongings, hires the dissolute bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn – over his objections – to catch Chaney, with the condition that she accompany him on the chase. They are joined by the arrogant Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, himself pursuing Chaney for the murder of a state senator and a dog in Texas. (It is unclear which was the greater transgression.)

The Coen brothers were, as far as I can tell having not read the novel, faithful to the original work, or at least far more so than the 1969 adaptation for which John Wayne won an Academy Award. (I haven’t seen that film either.) That decision appears double-edged to me, for while it means they stuck to Mattie’s perspective and gave her character a richness it might have otherwise lacked, it also leads down the figurative and literal slope of coincidences and sentiment in the film’s final fifteen minutes. Everything is a little too clean and perfect. You knew that a snake would come into play. You knew someone would fall into the hole in the ground. The Coen brothers didn’t have to kill off a main character to make the film a little grittier, pun intended, but it seems that their loyalty to Portis’ original work won out.

Two aspects of the film stood out over all others. One, obviously, is Hailee Steinfeld, who portrays Mattie and was just 12 years old when True Grit was filmed. Her performance was absolutely critical to the movie’s success – she needs to be tough, firm, adult-like in sensibility yet still maintaining the naïveté of a child of her age; if she’s not believable, nothing that comes after in the film would matter. She must be able to boss around the grizzled, alcoholic Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges) and yet to be vulnerable when she’s first exposed to violence or finds herself disdained (or worse) by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). And she owns the screen in her negotiation with the dismissive horse-trader that ends with her talking him into a corner and out of his money, a scene where you would easily forget Steinfeld’s age were you not reminded of it within the dialogue. That she accomplished this at her age in her first significant film role is remarkable and justifies the passel of awards she won for her work, as well as the nomination for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (an award won by Melissa Leo for The Fighter).

The other aspect that stood out is the cinematography, which is not something I ordinarily notice in films unless it’s done poorly. But the Coen brothers played True Grit as a classic Western epic, filling the screen with wide-angle views of the countryside, using plot elements like having Mattie on top of a cliff while a battle rages below as an excuse for Roger Deakins to give us an expansive shot of the dusty plateau where the climactic encounter of the book occurs.

(I admit I would have loved to have seen an outtake featuring Rooster Cogburn ordering a White Russian, but maybe that’s just me.)

As for the Best Picture race of last year, I’d still give The King’s Speech the nod over True Grit; both were well-acted, but the two lead performances in The King’s Speech were better than any of the three major performances here. Both films benefited from some contrived drama – the former by altering historical circumstances, the latter through a little coincidence and some silly foreshadowing – but The King’s Speech did so more subtly.


  1. The dialogue was classic Coen Brothers, which always rates as plus.

  2. I’m not a big movie buff, but I’ve seen the original and not the recent adaptation. I’d be interested to hear your take on it; while perhaps still too “clean and perfect”, I thought the scene at the end with the snake played out well enough.

  3. Using baseball scouting terms to rate a movie. Genius. True Grit seemed like a movie that I liked better immediately after seeing but over time lost some of its shine.

  4. Have you seen Blood Simple? It was the Coen brother’s first movie and it is superb. While subtle, it contains the humor we come to expect from these two. And given your affinity for ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘noir’ genres, this should be right up your alley. I enjoy it as much as anything else they’ve made, it’s a fantastic debut.

  5. I agree with previous post. If you like the Cohen brothers then Blood Simple is must see. A serious man is really good also. Loved the White Russian comment Klaw. That would have been hilarious. Love the reviews. Keep them coming.

  6. I think Roger Deakins is the best cinematographer in the world. Check out The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s a long ponderous film, but it’s also the most beautifully shot film in the last decade.

  7. klaw, i usually enjoy your writing and critiques whether i 100% agree with them or not, but i’m curious how you can claim that the coen’s adaptation was more “faithful to the original work” than the john wayne version if you’ve neither read the novel nor seen the 1969 film.

  8. I thought you might enjoy this review of True Grit by Father Barron:

  9. Like in ‘No Country for Old Men’ the Coen’s basically filmed the book. This leads to gripes from some moviegoers because of some of the uncinematic parts of the books that they leave in – the protagonist dying off screen and the film ending with the description of the dream in ‘NCFOM’ and Mattie losing her arm and never seeing LeBeouf or Cogburn again in ‘True Grit.’

    BTW, Charles Portis is a fantastic writer and I heartily recommend all 5 of his books, ‘True Grit,’ ‘Norwood,’ ‘Masters of Atlantis,’ ‘The Dog of the South’,’ and Gringos.’

  10. Marty: I didn’t “claim” that. I said, “as far as I can tell,” which, with the subsequent disclaimer, should make it clear that I’m relying on secondary sources to justify that statement.