The story of True Grit is as simple as a classic western and iconic as a Greek drama — a tale of revenge and redemption, told with wit, grit, and a dash of cathartic poignancy.
Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has killed Frank Ross in cold blood. Frank's 14-year-old daughter, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), is determined to see Chaney hanged for murder. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a murderer of a different sort: as a U.S. Marshall, he has a license to go after outlaws and bring them back, dead or alive. More often than not, he brings them back dead.
Mattie is looking for a marshal with "grit" to help her find her father's killer. The trigger-happy Cogburn is her choice. But the title of the film could just as easily describe Mattie herself. Smart enough to outnegotiate a horse trader, well-versed in the law, plucky enough to tame and ride a new mustang, and tenaciously persistent, she is a girl with true grit. Cogburn is at first irritated by this young whippersnapper, but as he sees her determination, irritation gives way to grudging admiration. Eventually he grows to love her with the protective ferocity of a mother bear.
As they travel together, Cogburn slowly reveals his past to her. He has two failed marriages behind him, as well as a son who, he admits, "never liked me very much." With her unflinching courage and impressive education, Mattie becomes both the son and the daughter Cogburn did not raise. Gradually she comes to represent his opportunity for redemption as a father.
Comparisons to the 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne, are inevitable. After all, the Duke won his one and only Oscar for this role. Many critics have complained that Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is a grizzled old coot, barely visible behind his whiskers and eye patch. Nevertheless, Bridges sells it, supplying what I consider the original film’s missing ingredient: the growing emotional connection between the precocious yet vulnerable young girl and the old man who has buried his personal life in a whiskey bottle. The chemistry simply didn't exist between Kim Darby and John Wayne, who openly complained about his costar's lack of experience and depth.
Darby's Mattie was bent on reforming the irascible, hard-drinking, cynical Cogburn, but Steinberg's Mattie simply accepts him for who he is and takes care of him when he needs it. When she removes Rooster's tobacco and rolling paper from his fumbling hands and deftly produces a tight cigarette, she does it without condemnation or flourish; it's apparent that she has rolled cigarettes for her father many times before. The gesture symbolizes a subtle transfer of Mattie's affection and signals the beginning of Cogburn's redemption. By contrast, in Kim Darby's hands the cigarette is an unspoken accusation of his immorality.
The Coen Brothers are probably the most versatile moviemaking team in the business. They defy any attempt to place them in a genre box, unless that box is just labeled "Good." It has been said that paper is cheaper than film, and the Coens have taken that axiom to heart, beginning with a great script that leads inevitably to a great story and a great film. From the quirky Raising Arizona to the starmaking Fargo to the sleazy The Big Lebowski to the sublime O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, they’ve known how to make movies the old fashioned way: with great stories, great acting, and great cinematography. True Grit may not be their quirkiest or most original, but it is a true winner.