True Grit is a western that owes little to John Ford or Howard Hawks. It’s in a class by itself. Forget the John Wayne version. Joel and Ethan Coen, the directors and writers, created an original vision based on the novel by Charles Portis.
It’s a simple story of a 14-year old girl, Mattie Ross (played by the astonishing Hailee Steinfeld) determined to bring her father’s killer Tom Chaney (played by Josh Brolin) to justice. She asked the sheriff for the best bounty hunter in the town. But the sheriff’s idea of best wasn’t hers. She wanted the meanest and toughest. He turned out to be Rooster (Rubin) Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges to perfection. We meet him in the outhouse outside a bar when Maddie is determined to hire him. He’s crusty and blunt, telling her to get the hell away. His old, tired and grizzly act is just that: an act. He spars with her and protects her. Bridges has a way with the almost artificial language that speaks of its era. He chews on the dialogue like a juicy bone.
Mattie Ross was tough as nails. She was tart tongued with a withering response for everyone. She negotiated straight on with all the older men she meets, whether it’s restitution for her father’s property or for Rooster Cogburn’s help. When Cogburn left her behind to find Tom Chaney, she galloped after him, called him a thief and demanded her money back.
There are elegiac moments worthy of the best of Ford’s Monument Valley pics. When Mattie is bitten by a rattlesnake, Rooster takes her on a ride on her beloved black horse through the glowing landscape of the west, with the deep horizon and multi-hued sky bearing down on the riders (cinematography by Roger Deakins).
To catch up with Rooster after he leaves without her, she gallops into the water up to her horse’s neck. The climatic shootout between the gang harboring Chaney and Cogburn was thrilling. Bridges charged towards four adversaries, guns in each hand with the bridle in his mouth. Two-fisted, deadly accurate shooting. Matt Damon as La Boeuf was a bit of a goodie two shoes as a straight arrow Texas Ranger. Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney struck the right note of resignation as if he’s thinking, what next can possibly happen to me.
An interesting point is how civilized, almost courteously, the rivals behaved toward each other even though there was grisly violence. When Lucky Ned Pepper (played by Barry Pepper) grabs Mattie as a hostage, he treats her as an equal, listening patiently to her story and charging Chaney to keep her safe.
Jeff Bridges and Hallie Steinfeld are an odd couple made in Western heaven.