True Grit

A young girl has just lost her father in a meaningless flash of violence. The culprit, a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has since fled into Indian territory with a ruthless gang and it looks like he may escape justice for the murder he committed.

The young girl is Mattie Ross (Hailee Stanfield), fourteen years-old but wiser and tougher than her years suggest. She was sent by her hysterical mother to collect her father’s body and his possessions and then come home. But Mattie has different plans: she’s looking for vengeance and hires the man most likely of carrying it out, the US Marshal described as the “meanest” in town: Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).

Rooster is a hard-living man with a bulging waistline and a missing eye. How it got missing, we’ll never know, and he’ll never tell. He speaks as if he has marbles in his mouth or if he’s just on the verge of recovering from a binge. He’s killed fifteen, or maybe it was twenty-three, men as a Marshal. You can tell by his face that he knows exactly how many men he’s killed – even if he won’t admit to the number. By the time True Grit‘s over, he’ll have added a few more notches to his weathered belt.

Along for the journey is the Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is also pursuing Chaney for the murder of a state senator. LeBoeuf makes it clear that capturing Chaney is a “two-man job,” and joins up with Rooster because he knows the land, while LeBoeuf knows the man. He begrudgingly accepts Mattie’s presence, even though he thinks it’s a bad idea, and the trio set out to find Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper – no relation) gang whom Chaney has joined up with.

This Western is quite different from those that have preceded it. The Coen Brothers have created a world where the sharpest tongue is as respected as the quickest draw. Clint Eastwood’s famous character, the Man of Few Words, would not have fared well here. To be inarticulate and silent in this place is the surest sign of death or its cinematic equivalent, irrelevance. The intelligent dialogue and verbal sparring is a key strength of the film and one of its best scenes occurs early on when Mattie negotiates with a businessman to trade for her father’s property.

But the film isn’t able to stand on the strength of its dialogue alone. Most of the conversations, while entertaining, are ultimately an exercise in style rather than substance. The characters speak, but they never reveal anything about themselves.  You know just as much about the characters going out of the film as you did going in. And what you know about them isn’t much.

True Grit pretty much collapses in its third act. The trio eventually find Chaney and have their climatic confrontation. Except it’s as anti-climatic as it can get. Chaney is a coward and a loser, far from the portrait of pure villainy that LaBouef and Mattie seem to characterize him as. Even his own gang doesn’t seem to like him very much. They prefer him to watch the camp and grab water while they do the real work of stealing and murdering. He’s inarticulate and weak and he stares dumbly when he sees Mattie, only being able to muster up a puzzled “I know you.” Some could argue that this is a strength of the film, because we expect Mattie’s vengeance will be a pulse-quickening occasion and perhaps have a lengthy shootout. But instead it’s plain, cold-blooded, and seems rather meaningless. Making the conclusion of an arduous journey meaningless can be an effective way to close a film; that is, if the journey itself has meaning. True Grit leaves the audience with a handful of nothing.

By the time the Damon ex machina device is used and the three characters get their “grit” tested in consecutive scenes, the film’s all but fallen apart. There’s a pretty terrible epilogue, some bad green screen during a key sequence, and a final shot that looks like its been lifted directly from Unforgiven. True Grit has some great scenes and moments in it, but it’s a film that ends with a shrug. To quote Rooster: “That didn’t pan out.”

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One Response to True Grit

  1. Pingback: Grand Duel/The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe « Modest Movie

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