Mattie is a force that will take the measure of every man who crosses her path.

True Grit

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

            You can leave your expectations of weirdness at the door. The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, have taken on the iconic American Western with an obvious deep respect for the form. With marvelous attention to casting, detail, dialogue, and music, they have made a movie that is gorgeous to see and fun to hear. True Grit is a salute, not a spoof.
            In the 1950s, families flocked to local movie houses to watch Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and their lovable like mete out justice in the lawless Old West. The good guys always won, though not without a few tears shed by the little woman left peeking out from behind the curtain of the family home - waiting, always waiting, for her man to return. The genre began to look silly in the '60s when Americans preferred sex, drugs, and rock n roll; and later, when television brought the real world into our living rooms with Vietnam and Watergate, Westerns began to look quaint compared to real life. They disappeared from our lives.
            The Coens are now revisiting the Western as history. In a terrific opening, a train slowly chugs across the screen revealing a town and its inhabitants. We are immediately thrown into a bargaining session between a horse trader (a memorable Dakin Matthews) and a young girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, who does all her own stunts). Within moments we know Mattie is not a 14-year old to be protected or pitied. She will not be peeking from behind the curtain. She is a force who will take the measure of every man who crosses her path.
            Among those who do are Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), U.S. Marshal, Mr. LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), and Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Chaney is the man who killed Mattie's father and when she announces her intended revenge, we don't doubt for a minute Mattie's ability to find the killer with the help of the man she has hired - Rooster Cogburn. In addition to inspired casting, the Coens create a sensuous feel of the Old West. Living for weeks on little food with never a change of clothes, weather pelting them with snow and rain - the characters exude stink and grime and exhaustion.
            In another great stroke, the Coens have everyone speak in starched cadences ("one against four, it's ill-advised.) Had they given this just to the serious and formal Mattie it would have sounded silly. Instead, it erases contemporary accents and allows the film to find a nicely undefined time slot in history.
            Jeff Bridges, who speaks whole sentences with his eyes, can be an overpowering presence, but here he holds back in silent appreciation of Mattie's determination. He and Matt Damon have marvelous roles that they turn into great screen characters. But this is Hailiee Steinfeld's picture. She asks for it, politely of course, and the men of the Wild West hand it to her gladly.

 


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