For most, the defining image associated with True Grit is of Rooster Cogburn, grizzled, one-eyed, overweight U.S. Marshal, riding down on his nemesis Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang, a blazing six-gun in either hand. The Coen Brothers don’t argue with this view, and ensure that Jeff Bridges gets his moment to grip horse traces in his teeth in their lush new version of the tale. I shall not add a contrary voice to the consensus.
I am glad to see though that the focus on this re-telling is firmly on the girl who tells the story. Little Mattie Ross, only fourteen and yet taking on the world and all its hard lessons in her pursuit of the man who murdered her father. The hunt, it is clear from the beginning, is her way of grieving, and it would be tantamount to betrayal to abandon the chase, no matter what obstacles lie in her way. The world does not care about justice, it seems, but she does. Mattie will never tell a lie, never break a promise, never walk away from a contract.
Though small enough to be knocked off her feet by the recoil every time she fires a gun, she will sleep in a funeral parlour full of corpses and fearlessly negotiate with a hard-bitten stockman to ensure she has the funds to continue her quest. Set against her, everyone else seems compromised, foolish, crippled by their misdeeds and mistakes. Her prey, Tom Cheney, is a weak, venal halfwit. Laboeuf, the Texas Ranger who falls in and out of her company is a strutting loudmouth, incapable of silence even after he near bites off his tongue. Cogburn, well, Rooster is as mean as a long winter’s night and about as ugly. He’s a drunk, a brute and a killer, who’d be dead at the end of a rope years ago if not for the star that he wears. It’s no accident that everyone but Mattie is a grotesque, with mouthfuls of appalling teeth, scars and extraordinary facial hair. As Cogburn, Jeff Bridges manoeuvres his bulk around like a bear after a stroke, quick and graceful only in combat.
Mattie is no angel. She’s stubborn as two mules, inflexible as a new leather crop. She will shed tears for no man, although shed tears she does, in a truly heartbreaking moment. The world is a simple place in her eyes, a realm where there is no excuse for the wicked to remain unpunished, for the death of an honest man to go unavenged. Mattie is biblical in her wrath, relentless and unbreakable. She seeks a man with true grit to help her bring Tom Cheney down, but in the end it is clear that she has more grit than anyone.
Hailee Steinfeld provides us with a clear, unalloyed view of Mattie Ross. In tight braids, an over-sized hat, breeches and boots, she cuts an unyielding silhouette. She is clear-eyed, tough but with an underlying sweetness. It would be easy to turn Mattie into a vengeful automaton, but that is never the case here. She takes joy in tales told round the campfire, and in the company of her beloved pony Little Blackie. She learns some awful lessons out on Indian territory, but they never dispel her faith that justice will be done, and that the men she rides with will prove as equal to the task as she.
The re-telling of True Grit is a job that has been done with care and skill. Under the lenses of Roger Deakins, the New Mexico landscapes are harsh and clean. The Brothers Coen have provided a lean script, the dialogue florid yet spare, capturing the conversations of Mattie, Rooster and LaBoeuf with a delight in the eccentricities and formalities of the period. There is violence, and when it appears it is sharp and brutal. But that isn’t the point to the tale, and it’s well over halfway through the film before a gun is fired in anger. True Grit is a story about how when it comes to seeking justice, innocence is frequently the greatest weapon you can wield.
An excellent comic adaptation of the moment when Rooster and Mattie first crossed paths is available on the True Grit site for your perusal here. Fill your hands.