Before seeing this movie, my friends Dan, Mel and I were having a discussion across various walls and photos on Facebook. Which is better: Black Swan or True Grit? Mel says True Grit is better, Dan says Black Swan is better. Without having seen either, I voted Black Swan because I liked The Wrestler and didn’t like The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty. Have you seen those last two movies? True Grit had a funny press push. It was nominated for Best Picture in the popular media sight-unseen, well in advance of its December 31st release. I seemed to be the only person asking: What if True Grit is only as good as The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty? Those movies, meaning no offense to the Coens, kinda blow goats. And what if True Grit isn’t as “worthy” as No Country for Old Men?
Well, we can safely put that body to rest–True Grit sucks. Nah, I’m kidding, it’s not that bad. Instead, it is one of those weird, weird movies where it seems like the directors, producers and uncredited editors are doing everything they can to make it just like every other movie they’ve made, but the actors are having none of it. It’s exactly the same shapeless, formless, harmless drivel I’ve come to expect dripping out of the projector when the Coens demand final cut, but I’ll tell you what’s different this time. The actors. Hailee Steinfeld alone took a look at the Coens’ earlier work and said “Forget this, I’m gonna be as winning as Return of the King and as charming as a Pixar hero, cos even if this movie is a blank slate onto which we throw our biases, I will be good.”
True Grit is the story of a fourteen year old girl named Mattie Ross (Steinfeld). A needless epigraph tells us something Mattie’s story says moments later: that guilty men flee when none pursue. The man in question, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), is guilty of killing her father for trying to help him at the wrong time. Now, she seeks a man with grit to help her find Chaney and kill him. The two candidates are a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon would like you to know that rhymes with shareef) and a Federal Marshall named “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). TheBeef is a dandy, perpetually blowing up stories of his work as a Texas Ranger to make himself seem bigger than he is. Rooster, by contrast, is almost always drunk, smoking and missing an eye. None of those things keeps Rooster from killing over a dozen people by the time this movie starts, most of them in cold blood. Mattie’s first choice is Rooster Cogburn. He indeed has the most grit.
Mattie’s a sharp business mind, and is introduced about four or five times making deals that leave grown men in deeper holes than they should be in. One of these was strictly necessary, with a half of one a day later to close the joke. That’s it. Rooster Cogburn is introduced being examined in a court of law for shooting a man dead. Did I need to hear every single back and forth between him and the defense counsel to get the idea that he shot a bad man in cold blood? Couldn’t I have got that idea from the fact that later on in the movie, he shoots bad men in cold blood? See, this is the first symptom of coenitis. Your first act is so god damn long that an innocent reviewer with other things on his mind has forgotten most of it by the time he’s left the theater. It’s full of redundant points and scenes that say the same things, over and again, for going on five minutes when all you need are two. Don’t give me an epigraph when a narrator says the same thing near-verbatim fewer than sixty seconds later.
I have a reader named Mel. She’s in the characters section. And Mel, one of the things I can’t stand hearing from you is “you got to the gripes about x that I knew you were gonna have”. This is not the gripes. This is the why the hell is Hailee Steinfeld nominated for Supporting Actress section. I’m sorry, Academy, but you have some things terribly wrong if you looked at this movie and saw Mattie Ross as anyone but the main character. This is her story of her personal satisfaction and Hailee Steinfeld brings that to the screen in a quiet, understated and perfect way. She isn’t hamming it up, she’s not dumbing it down. She’s there and she’s ideal for the part. Supporting her with brilliant performances are her co-stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Their characters play opposite sides of the same coin, that coin being made of grit. Matt Damon’s TheBeef likes to see himself as “good” whereas Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is entirely unconcerned with how he’s seen. I would be too, with only one eye.
The obvious and hammered in moral lesson here is that grit itself isn’t an indicator of a good man or a bad man. Grit is nothing but grit and true grit is still nothing more than a layer and a half of grit with another half layer. Of the two men, Rooster Cogburn indeed has the most grit, but the dandy LaBoeuf would have you know that he has his fair share. Granted, that’s a biased sample. Of the three main characters, the one with the most grit indeed is Mattie Ross. It’s funny what you discover within yourself after being convinced by society that you have to find your satisfaction and your retribution by the hand of a man. Mattie doesn’t forgive and doesn’t forget, and everyone dealing with her would do well to remember both of those things.
After all of that, do I like True Grit? It exists, and it’s a nominee for Best Picture. I don’t expect it to win, I don’t wish it to win. In fact, if I go my whole life without seeing another movie by the Coen Brothers, it might be too soon. This time, however, the actors won. And I’m glad they did. THREE STARS