Movies

10 Critical Thoughts About… True Grit

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Highly specific observations on the Coen Brothers' Western with Jeff Bridges.

Matt Damon in True Grit

After losing her father to the notorious Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) undertakes an improbable trek toward justice. Seeking the help of men with "true grit," she strings along Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) to accompany her through Indian Territory, where she believes her father's murderer is hiding.

1. It's based on the book True Grit, not the movie True Grit.
But since it's the Coen brothers, it's probably also based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, Faulkner, the Book of Deuteronomy, Bless Me, Ultima, the Crimean War, the 1992 Chicago Cubs, Barton Fink, leaked diplomatic cables, Wishbone, Laos, McCarthyism…

2. It's a mighty fine Western movie.
As far as Westerns go, this one's as good as it gets. Journeys are taken, horses are ridden, Native Americans are encountered, honors are proven, guns are shot, scores are settled.

3. It's an okay Coen brothers movie.
When the CoBros adapted No Country For Old Men, you kind of thought that would be that. "This is what it looks like when we do a Western," they seemed to say. "Now watch us do a zombie movie!" But instead of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, we get another, safer Western, one a little too faithful to its genre and its source material to let the Coens get buckwild.

4. A man can have multiple mustaches.
"That man there, with the mustaches," says a woman, pointing to a guy with a goatee. Yeah, why have only one goatee when you could have two to three mustaches? I like the way you think, lady!

5. Fuck yeah, America!
Mattie and her male companions take us through the breathtaking vistas of what we are told is Oklahoma but know in our hearts and Wikipedia pages are Central Texas and Santa Fe, NM. But we don't need a map to know it's the goddamn U.S. of A. Where else can you see a tweenaged girl and her steed dramatically, implausibly, heroically thrash their way across a river in the name of justice? The movie comes this close to having the horse shout, "The United States is, not are!"

Jeff Bridges6. Everybody knows everybody.
There are a lot of kooky names to keep track of. Bear Grit, Lucky Ned Pepper, Threeten Toyuma, Col. Stonehill, et al. So it might help to only remember the names of the central figures: Mattie is the tiny girl, Rooster is the big Lebowski, LaBoeuf is the talented Mr. Ripley, and Tom Chaney is so Josh Brolin.

7. But who among them has the true grit?
The brothers Coen love morally ambiguous characters, and it doesn't get more morally ambiguous than the Old West. (Anyone can say he's a U.S. Marshall if he wants to kill someone, right?) And within the central trio, there are varying levels of integrity — the fun is in figuring out whose grit is truest.

8. So nobody's going to ask about the eyepatch?
It's just sitting there on Jeff Bridges' face, like he was born with it. And nobody thinks twice about it, or asks about it, even though they know it's got to be one hell of a story. The Old West!

9. SNAKE!
Just when you think everything's all set, SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE! The Old West!

10. Was it worth it?
Mattie's quest to right some wrongs takes its toll on a number of people, not least of all herself. The collateral damage incurred along the way is considerable — people's lives are disrupted for the sake of her personal vendetta. But each character has their own idea of what's good and what's bad, and maybe you'll find yourself agreeing with one of them.