There's Something About Mattie In Coen Bros' "True Grit"
“The jakes is occupied. Will be for some time,” Cogburn says to an inquiring Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). But she can wait. She has some business dealings to negotiate with the marshall.
Mattie’s father was murdered somewhat unceremoniously by an outlaw named Tom Chaney. She is seeking something akin to justice for his death, and in the late 19th century Western frontier, justice often needs active encouragement. Mr. Cogburn will just have to do—no matter how powerful he must smell.
Cogburn and his young employer go deep into Choctaw territory in search of Chaney, accompanied on occasion by a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). The landscape of unexplored Arkansas, shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, is depicted as cold and indifferent. No country for a 14-year old girl.
The plot of “True Grit” is remarkably thin; then again, so are the plots of most great Westerns. And in a year when audiences have had to grapple with logic exercises or campy fantasias under the guise of a movie, the crisp elocution of a good yarn can feel like a revelation.
Do not, however, make the mistake of equating a thin plot with a simplistic film. Shots of bodies lying on the ground after a gunfight or a hero(ine) crossing a river on horseback may be conventions of the genre, but in the right hands they make for a searing commentary on morality.
So it must be mentioned that the steady hands guiding this project belong to Joel and Ethan Coen. It is news to almost no one who has heard of the movie; the directors are at a point where their names are as prominent on the posters as any of the actors (occasionally more so).
I believe we are currently at the tail end of what will later be described as a certain era of Coen Brothers films. Beginning with “No Country for Old Men” and continuing until now, the duo has released a film a year, and each has been among their best work. The script here is a marvel. Charles Portis’ source material unleashes their love of intricate, heightened American dialect which they have been perfecting since “Raising Arizona.” People in the Coen universe don’t use words to convey meaning, but to appreciate their sounds.
The first interpretation of Portis’ novel was in 1969, in a movie most renowned for being John Wayne’s Oscar turn as Cogburn. This time around, it is Mattie’s story. She speaks here with all the diction of a girl who reads through legal briefs in her free time. Her confidence may betray precociousness, but make no mistake, Mattie is only bemused by the society adults have constructed.
A lot will be said about Steinfeld’s ability to work her mouth around the movie’s dialogue–it will net her an Oscar nomination. But greatness in her performance comes from her ability to mix wonderment with abject horror. The men pretend to have a moral code that governs the lawlessness of the west, but Mattie understands it is only a mask for cruelty.
Bridges works as a comic foil to the madness. “I do not know this man,” he deadpans after staring at a corpse. As Bridges plays him, Cogburn may be this year's most lovable drunk. Damon is a pompous loudmouth, one of the Coens' favorite archetypes, but he also possesses an underlying charm. There is an implied attraction between Mattie and LaBoeuf, that, thanks to Damon’s skill, stays just on this side of a red flag.
The confrontation with Chaney is surprisingly deflated. Brolin creates a villain as Mark Twain might imagine him--an imposing cretin who seems less an embodiment of evil and more an example of mindless malice.
A canard about the Coens is that beneath all the humor and violence is a cold heart of irony. It is a specious claim (what can be more emotional than Donny’s funeral in “The Big Lebowski”?) that is thoroughly extinguished in a scene featuring a starlit ride through the prairies. On the surface it appears that Mattie’s life hangs in the balance, but the way the Coens, Deakins, and Carter Burwell’s elegiac score portray it, the innocence of a nation must be saved too.
Mattie pulls through, though not without some sacrifice. “Retribution” proclaims the film’s tagline in all the advertisements. Perhaps. But at what cost?
Reach reporter Tom Dotan here.