If you have ever been under the misapprehension that you are tough because you can scull a two-litre bottle of Solo without going into cardiac arrest, or because you once totally smacked down some strangers on the internet, then you should see True Grit. In it, fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield, otherwise known as My New Hero) takes control of the situation after her father is murdered by outlaw Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin, much less sexy than I like in my Brolin). Needing to see him brought to justice in a town where daddy Ross’s death is the least of the law’s problems, Mattie hires the meanest, grittiest State Marshal in town—one-eyed drunkard Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, unintelligible). Accompanied by Texas Marshal La Boeuf (in this flick pronounced “la beef”, if you’re curious, and played with great moustache by Matt Damon), they endeavour to track Cheney down.
Hailee Steinfield is a revelation, with Mattie being one of the toughest, smartest fourteen-year-olds you’ll ever meet, especially compared to the row full of fourteen-year-olds behind us who popped gum and talked throughout the whole movie. Had Mattie been in the theatre there with us, she would have intimidated them into silence, much like how she browbeats a trader in town into taking back the ponies her father just bought and paying her for her father’s horse, which Cheney had stolen but which had been on the trader’s property at the time. Mattie’s smarts and fearlessness see her sleeping at an undertaker’s amongst dead bodies and knocking out a sailor with an apple so she can storm her horse into a river and chase after Rooster—and that’s just the start. She’s fantastic, and has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, which is great and all except that she’s the bloody lead, what the hell Academy Awards. (When I am King, I will fix this, Hailee. It’ll be the second thing I do after making a new law involving five years in jail for those who disclose spoilers. Some of my decrees may even be unrelated to movies. But probably not.)
Rooster Cogburn, after too many cigarettes and too much whiskey and a large amount of missing teeth due to fighting, barely shuts up during the whole movie but is almost impossible to understand. This is probably due in part to unfamiliarity with old-timey westernspeak, but even when Mattie was at her most verbose (read: always) at least I could understand what she was saying. Despite this, he is tough, noble, and a crack shot even from 300 feet, or—in one memorable scene—while drunk off three bottles of booze and shooting cornbread in a field. While Rooster mumbles amicably, La Boeuf spends his time swaggering, his boots dripping with spurs and chains, his distrust of Mattie palpable until her display of true grit (I’ll attempt to say this as much as I can just to annoy you) wins him over. La Boeuf’s first few scenes with Mattie strike a very uncomfortable chord, but they come to nothing and are virtually forgotten by the end, much to my relief. Tom Cheney is an almost mythical figure for most of the movie, with the three doing their best to hunt for the man always slightly out of reach; Josh Brolin lends him quiet terror and some almost amusing trust issues, as he joins “Lucky” Ned Pepper (played by—no joke—Barry Pepper) and his band of merry/batshit men. It really is just a wonderful chase movie, with the folk they meet along the way an intriguing mix of crazy, or, well, dead.
Even as people are shot and cut up and blood flies all over the place, True Grit will make you bust out a couple of smiles too, with the rapport between Mattie, Cogburn and La Boeuf the source of constant amusement. Throughout, however, is the serious undercurrent of death and how cheap life was in the past (and still can be, for some), and it’s gripping from start to finish—though at an hour and forty minutes it’s fairly short for a Western—and completely enthralling. Quietly beautiful to look at, the scenery is as cold and unforgiving as it is untouched and gorgeous. The Coen brothers don’t even mind slotting in cliched Western shots, like when Rooster and Mattie ride on a horse across the horizon as the sun sets behind them, but make them feel well-placed and not cheesy; this is a Western done with a nod to the style but without falling into parody or imitation. The opening scene is pitch-perfect, as Mattie narrates the tale of her father’s death while we watch snow fall on her father’s deserted body and Cheney ride his horse away. Right from that moment, the film won me over; nothing could ruin it for me.
Though, seriously, for a bunch of smart and/or experienced trackers, you’d expect them to know that you can’t knock a bad guy out without him coming back at inopportune times. Seriously, old-timey people, have you never seen an action movie?
In summary: Exceeds Expectations. Apart from a downbeat final few minutes, I adored this film, and it’s reminding me why people love Westerns. Despite my growling against them, maybe I will too. And maybe I’ll even read the Charles Portis book, or see the John Wayne original—though I recently saw Rio Bravo (fantastic) and don’t want to imagine Wayne as anyone else, especially as he usually comes across as so goddamn grumpy. What, like life was so hard in the 1800s? Pshaw. One more thing: as was probably the way in the wild west, horses aren’t always treated very well, and they get shot and hurt. Fake or not, I covered my eyes—you might have to as well.