It is a bittersweet feeling, to hit the wall of heat outside of the cinema’s force-field of conditioned air only to realise that your first film of the year may well be the best one. This was momentarily the case for True Grit, only I realised that I was looking forward to seeing this film a second time with as much anticipation as I had before the first screening, and not just to decipher a little more of Jeff Bridges’ moustache and ‘liquor’ muffled lines. The ubiquitous trailer for True Grit was utterly convincing, and sure enough, the film itself fulfilled its promise: an adventure of biblical, romantic, and death-defying proportions that is slick and richly detailed. Evidence the boy’s-own adventure Western has grown up.
The Coen brothers are surely some of the world’s most reliable directors. That they produce a disappointing film is by now, inconceivable. True Grit is an adaptation of a book by the same name published in 1968. Whilst it was made swiftly into a feature film starring the Duke, John Wayne, in 1969, the Coens’ film is not a re-make, but rather a second adaptation. True Grit is a pursuit tale; 14-year-old Arkansas girl Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) seeks out the services of U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s killer, one no-good Tom Cheney, and bring him to justice for his crimes, which in both her and the law’s eyes, means death. For her inexperience, Mattie is in possession of the quickest of wits and never stoops to flinch at the depravity or danger surrounding her, no small part of which is embodied by Cogburn himself. The two are joined by conspicuously out-of-town Texas Rancher ____ LeBeouf (another charming performance by Matt Damon), in pursuit of Cheney for his own reasons.
Despite being the second flim of this title, the Coen’s True Grit, a sure-as-hell Western, is entirely their own. In their version, Mattie Ross is given ample room to blossom, as it is her vendetta, not Cogburn’s prowes,s that compels the narrative. Unlike the ’69 John Wayne film, the casting of a big-name star like Jeff Bridges has not overshadowed the magnificence and colour of Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross. Hers is perhaps one of the greatest debut performances I have ever seen. Her immediate grip of such a bold and complex character is akin in its fullness to Control’s Sam Riley, though all the more impressive for her youth, and therefore lesser exposure to Westerns and late 19th century cultural history. Her performance is framed perfectly by that of Bridges’, and also by that of Matt Damon’s LeBeouf, who is chatty, noble and self-inflated all at once. All this bodes for some classic Coen scriptwriting. Spirited banter and a fluctuating level of adulthood abound, as the characters rile each other over their drinking, talking, poor education, mistakes and shooting ability. This niggling over foibles might be classic Coen, but enlivens each character, and Steinfeld, Bridges and Damon seem expertly attuned in these moments.
True Grit is also the Coens’ first fully-fledged Western. Not that they haven’t beat around the bush. Bungling prison-break film O Brother Where Art Thou? waltzed through Western terrain, styled like a yellowed photograph as the first feature film ever made to be shot entirely in sepia-tone. Then of course, last year’s contemporary thriller No Country for Old Men, an adaptation of all-American grizzled bard Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. True Grit is spot-on. An aerial pan-shot of a post civil-war era middle-American high street, dusty and be-wagoned, is almost touchingly faithful to the genre.
Of late, the Western is enjoying a new lease of life. Films such as The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma, and There Will Be Blood all having been released with a sense of resurrection – something audiences seem grateful for. This popularity may be symptomatic of the tiring out of action/chase films (the kind boasting rooftop scuffles and exploding helicopters), but not of the expertly skilled, trigger-happy, tough-talking ‘Badasses’ found therein. A Western film is like an action movie set in the past, like Die Hard with horses instead of cop cars. True Grit promises this tough, vigilante character in Bridges' Rooster Cogburn, but also promises not to go cutesy on the viewer. The Wild West ain’t pretty, and no rotted tooth, dribbling wound or unwashed moustaches are spared here. Rather, the film revels in a palette of browny-grey filth. With no semi-automatics, and very little bathing, it seems the Badass, is getting back to basics.
Whilst constantly entertaining, True Grit is an important examination of the notion of toughness, particularly as it is displayed in the cinema. The title might suggest that true grit is something to be found in scarred, battle-hardened characters – probably older men, those with more than a few notches on their belts. These are your John Waynes, your Clint Eastwoods, heroes who match a landscape that is unforgiving, perilous and hardened. This is not only a staple element of the Western, but of some modern cinematic genres. Think of the recent spate of Greco-Roman epics, or the popularity of adaptations from the heroic universes of Marvel, DC and Vertigo. From this notion the Coens have strayed to great success. They display the mettle of their characters not as something earned or accumulated, but as something transient. Toughness, true grit, arises out of necessity. That is not to say those in between a rock and a hard place always rise to the occasion. To put on a brave face is something that requires concentration – it is the result of determination, and a symptom of caring about something. Money, love, loyalty, fear and loss may all contribute to a hardening of character, and yet hardiness may just as easily slip away when determination is in lack. Thick-skinned Rooster Cogburn might soften just so easily as precocious Mattie Ross may harden.
Mattie Ross is the young woman I confess I wish to be. I might suggest she is the manifestation of a role model that until now never existed. Past female audiences of Western films were certainly in lack of an exciting or heroic female presence – it is certainly difficult to look at a saloon floozy, passive farmwife or “rescued” native American girl and think “wow!” Certainly not when there are cowboys as deliciously foul-mouthed and action-ready as Rooster Cogburn present. But here, out on the arroyo there seems indeed to be a girl cowboy with true grit, every bit as exciting to watch as any Malboro Man. Whilst Mattie Ross is far from being some kind of statement character, it’s certainly a treat to find in the Coen’s unlikely gang of three a kindred rambunctious spirit.
It is comforting to know that the beloved Western may be back for good. But moreso it is exciting to find that the cowboy on the magical prairie with smoking pistols, leather fringes and abundant sass can be handled by contemporary directors, masters like the Coens, and be both a work of the genre and a work of their own. So long as idiosyncratic ‘boysploitation’ techniques from the Spaghetti Western era (such as black hat/white hat uniforms or native girls wearing mascara) are avoided, and audiences are still in love with the heroic vigilante character, there is no reason the Western should be riding off into the sunset any time soon.