Thursday, December 23, 2010

I Believe in Mattie Ross -- Reflections on "True Grit" (2010)

Mattie Ross is an unlikely heroine. She's fourteen, plucky, intelligent, and full of grit.

Yes, despite the fact that Mattie gives this title to Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) early in the film, the Coen brothers' True Grit is really about her. This film hinges on whether or not we can believe in Mattie's determination, her resolve, her grit. And the answer is...we can.

As played by Hailee Steinfield, an unknown young actress in her first feature film, Mattie Ross is completely believable, completely relatable, and completely remarkable. From the moment she sets foot off a train to tend to the business of burying and revenging her father, the girl captures our hearts and makes this film one of the must-see movies of 2010.

Mattie is on a mission. Her father has been murdered by a swine named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and Mattie wants justice. She aims to see Chaney brought in, or, preferably, killed at her own hand. This leads her into the company of Rooster Cogburn, an insufferable, drunken federal marshal with one eye and a bad reputation. Also on the hunt for Chaney is Texas Ranger LaBouef (Matt Damon), who allies himself with Mattie and Rooster with an aim of bringing Chaney back to Texas for the murder of a Senator and his dog.

Their mission is long, full of danger, and just the kind of material that could be hackneyed if done by most other Hollywood directors. Fortunately, this film is directed by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski). Under their direction, the mission is a rite of passage for Mattie, who thinks she's more grown up than she actually is. With the Coens, details are the thing, and they constantly remind us of Mattie's immaturity in the little things. She manages to stare Rooster and LaBouef down, but can't get an old woman to share a blanket in the middle of the night. She can negotiate a deal with a horse trader, but she can't negotiate with Rooster to bury one of the bodies left in the wake of their mission. Mattie's believability lies in the fact that she is still a kid, living in britches way too big for her. Hell, she can barely fit into the hat she wears for the trip.

I imagine a lot of critics will be talking about how this movie compares with the 1969 John Wayne film. It's not much of a fair comparison. They really are two completely different films with the exception of the basic storyline. The 1969 version was really a star vehicle for John Wayne, and he took home the Oscar for his performance. Mattie was played by another newcomer, at the time, named Kim Darby. For me, I always felt that Darby was annoying as Mattie, her voice and demeanor grating as she constantly nagged at Rooster. The Coens wanted a darker film that was more true to the source material, the 1968 novel by Charles Portis. That's what they give us here, replete with their traditional gallows humor. As a result, the film feels more alive and real than the original.

Part of what makes True Grit feel so alive is that it is marvelously shot. Roger Deakins' cinematography captures the open western frontier with rich amber tones. Every shot feels like a painting, making the movie one you're likely to freeze-frame a lot when re-watching later on Blu-ray (or maybe that's just me).

Of course, a lot more could be said about Jeff Bridges' performance. He's stellar. Same for Matt Damon. They've proven themselves countless times, and this movie is no different. As Rooster, Bridges is dark, haunted, and extremely funny. Damon plays LaBouef as a MAN from TEXAS with a mouth the size to match, and his chemistry with Bridges is yet another highlight of this movie.

But this movie belongs to Steinfield, as it should.