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“Grit”, as a way to describe fortitude and tenacity, is a mutating thing. Levels of it, and styles of it, change by the situation and the subjects. One person’s definition of grit on a given day may not jive with another person’s definition. Appearances change perception of hard-to-define qualities, especially those which are not necessarily called upon or likely to be noticed during most day-to-day events. It’s the fate of the truly tenacious to be thrown in with those who may appear tough on the outside, but lack the experience to know their own toughness. Often, an observer can confuse the two, just as a fading stoic can fall into confusion about his or her own grit. With experience eventually comes the inevitability of doubt, and perhaps a level of strength is derived from the way such doubt can define the parameters of one’s ability and constitution. At any rate, true grit is observable really only by those who have some form of it themselves. It takes one, they say, to know one.
“True Grit”, the Coen Brothers’ latest film, is the story of the rather precociously gritty young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who takes on the task of bringing her father’s killer to justice. She’d do it herself if she could, one gets the idea, but she’s smart enough to know that she could use some help. She gets that help in the form of the meanest ol’ scrappin’ Marshal around, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who also happens to be a one-eyed drunk. He’s bigger than life and plain as day, but deliciously written and portrayed as the kind of coot a child might assemble in her head as just the sort who’d be well-equipped to exact justice on men of similar appearance and far less virtue. Rooster Cogburn is the wild west itself; grizzled and tough, eager for a dollar, myopic, quick on the draw, and certainly not to be trifled with. Mattie disarms the elder bounty hunter with her calm purpose and commitment to her endeavor. It’s clear Cogburn sees her as needing to be taken care of, and this gives him a sense of duty beyond her offer of a hundred dollars for the killer’s capture.
In the original “True Grit”, John Wayne dominated the proceedings with his persona. He was a life-long veteran of western film adventures by that point, and therefore seemingly had something in common with the Marshal. But in that film, the John Wayne persona seemed to overwhelm the character. Wayne’s innate bravado is not the sort of thing that is likely cultivated by years of the sort of activities that a one-eyed six-gunner like Rooster Cogburn is meant to have experienced. Perhaps a child would imagine such a progression likely (and in both versions of “True Grit”, Mattie Ross does take her Cogburn at face value) but Cogburn is not meant as a one-dimensional cartoon cowboy. Fortunately, Jeff Bridges brings much less cultural baggage and much more acting prowess to the role. Cogburn lives in this new version of “True Grit” as a kind of American icon because of how he is written and portrayed, rather than because of the icon status of who is portraying him. It’s a relief for the character, and for the rest of us.
Matt Damon shows up as LeBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who is also on the trail of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, a very convincing dullard), Mattie’s father’s killer. He is the counterpoint to Cogburn, younger and clearer of vision, at least in the sense that he has both of his eyes. The relationship between the two men is fairly predictable, but no less interesting and fun for that predictability. The two characters have natural differences and as they have come to rely on their own strengths, they are wary and somewhat disdainful of these differences. LeBoeuf needs to be sober and straighforward; Cogburn needs to be a bit crazy. They find common ground in both being valuable in a scrap, though, and that’s plenty enough to make men friends while in pursuit of other men with guns.
Oh yeah, did I mention there are other men with guns? Chaney falls in with a gang of roughnecks who Cogburn knows from past adventures, led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, who’d have easily stolen a lesser film with this cameo performance). The pursuers find themselves with plenty to handle between each other and the criminals they’re after, all the while protecting young Mattie Ross.
All of this is gorgeously filmed by Roger Deakins, who is simply the best director of photography working in Hollywood today. A quick check of his credits shows a laundry list of some of the most captivating and stark visual landscapes in modern film. He’s worked as cinematographer with the Coen Brothers repeatedly, and it’s plain to see why they keep coming back to him; his framing creates a tone of its’ own, a place where great films can occur. The wildly under-appreciated “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was Deakins’ most recent film of the same genre, and in both that film and this one the world that he shows us is perfectly vivid even as it is drab and foreboding. He manages to evoke a sepia daguerreotype with each frame, without distracting from the story.
Joel and Ethan Coen have directed better films than this version of “True Grit”, but not many directors have directed films even this good. It’s a fairly simple story, stuffed with metaphor and allegory; a tale of the evolution of this country into a land of laws and relative civility. Each character gives up a piece of him or herself to the old country. It’s no place for old men or young girls, after all, but as we all know, that country and that time didn’t last forever. Civilization wiped out the kind of world that created stories like this, and perhaps grit like this. These days, if the child in us is looking for the kind of stuff Mattie Ross finds in her savior, Rooster Cogburn, we have to cross our fingers tight, and head to the movies.
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Release Date: December 22, 2010
Run Time: 110 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures