True Grit is set in a time when justice was a loose term and contractions have apparently not been introduced to the English language. After her father is murdered in cold-blood by an outlaw named Tom Chaney, the eloquent and calculating Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) travels to her father’s home with the goal of seeking justice against the attacker. She enlists the gruff and barely sober U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the pair heads into Indian Territory to track down Chaney (Josh Brolin) along with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who has financial motivations for pursuing the outlaw. Throughout the journey the trio faces unexpected trials and conflicts with one another that challenge their will for justice and their ability to trust one another.
The Coens’ story-telling strength is their character driven narratives and True Grit highlights that strength brilliantly. Each character is not only well-developed with an identifiable arc, but they are also immensely fascinating with psychological conditions that go way below the surface. Rooster Cogburn appears to be a pessimistic and tight-lipped old fogey until he pours out his soul to Mattie during the beginning of their journey with never-ending anecdotes for a lengthy horseback ride. Tom Chaney exudes a powerful and threatening physical presence until he opens his mouth and reveals he is an unintelligent lackey in a group of slightly brighter criminals. Throughout the film the Coens subvert expectations with characters that don’t fit a particular archetype thus making the film an atypical adventure.
With the depth of characters naturally comes brilliant and moving performances from top to bottom, which is why numerous Coen actors have gone on to Oscar nominations and wins. The one absolute stand out in this film is Hailee Steinfeld as the indubitable Mattie Ross who is inexplicably being campaigned for awards as a supporting actress. The fourteen-year-old (thirteen during filming) Steinfeld carries the film with an uncharacteristic intelligence, remarkably diverse vocabulary, and ingrained sense of entitlement that makes it completely believable that she would be the leader of the trio. She is perfectly balanced with Jeff Bridges whose blank-faced stare makes for some hilarious comedic exchanges.
The Coen brothers have been fortunate to build a working relationship with one of the greatest cinematographers of all-time in Roger Deakins who returns for this film. Deakins’ camera pays homage to cinematic greats as it maintains the stillness of classic John Ford Westerns while framing just enough of each shot to give us more of the story. In one of the first shots we get a low-angle shot looking upward at three men being hanged on the gallows. Simultaneous with their necks snapping grotesquely, we see two men looking on apathetically from a building in the background, one of them mopping his brow. This glimpse immediately puts the audience in the state of mind that was prevalent in this place and time: death is part of any normal day.
The Coen brothers’ (under the alias Roderick Jaynes) editing also works perfectly with Deakins’ camera work to create suspense and comedy. The perfectly timed reaction shots to Cogburn’s deadpan stare make for some of the most hilarious and telling moments between the three members of the trio. The editing also brilliantly contrasts the comedy with the darkness as in some scenes each individual shot seems to create a different tone. These are skilled craftsmen at the top of their game and the result is a thing of beauty.