I’ve liked a few westerns here and there, but it’s fair to say that it’s not exactly my genre of choice. Still, when the Coen brothers remake of True Grit hit theaters last year, I was kind of intrigued. I finally got around to watching it last week.
I don’t think it’s my very favorite western ever, but it’s up there.
Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) hires a marshall, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father. Matt Damon assists.
1. It is absolutely ridiculous that Hailee Steinfeld did not get nominated for Best Actress in a Lead Role.
I remember people saying that her part was substantially larger than a supporting role during Oscar season, but I didn’t quite realize to what extent until I saw this film. Hailee Steinfeld is in almost every scene. The story revolves around her—it is her journey, no one else’s. She probably has the most dialogue. She certainly has the most challenging part, and she was, what? Thirteen or fourteen when the film was being made?
Steinfeld is excellent as Mattie Ross—headstrong, intelligent, stubborn as a mule. She doesn’t back down, and you’ve gotta like her for that. I also like that she doesn’t come off as a caricature. I admire her for her tenacity, but I can also recognize that she has flaws—a decently large puritanical streak, for instance, or a childish belief that she can always get her way. In the midst of all her gung-ho awesomeness, you never forget that she’s still a young girl who often naively assumes that everything will turn out well on what she calls her “big adventure.”
I’d like to be happy that at least Steinfeld got nominated, but putting her in the supporting category simply because of her age is both insulting to her performance and frustrating to actresses who actually were in supporting roles and got shut out of the category.
I must say, though . . . she did look really cute at the Oscars.
2. I’ve never seen the original True Grit, so I can’t say if it’s any better or worse than the remake. Likewise, I can’t judge Jeff Bridges’s performance against John Wayne’s. I can say, however, that Jeff Bridge is a lot of fun, and he has some great dialogue (when you can understand it). I’m not exactly sold on his Oscar nomination—I don’t know that he did anything I’d call a huge stretch—but he was definitely enjoyable.
3. I enjoyed Matt Damon too as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (La Beef). He’s not exactly the brightest bulb, La Beef, but what starts out as sort of a bumbling idiot role turns into something else, and I liked watching him and Jeff Bridges play off one another. I read one review that said Damon was horribly miscast, but while I think it was certainly a different kind of role for him, I thought he did well with it.
4. Also, there is the vocal chameleon that is Josh Brolin.
Josh Brolin can do some crazy shit with his voice. I love watching stuff like this, where’s he’s all hillbilly caveman grrr guy, and then going back to what I originally know him from, The Goonies. The difference cracks me up every time.
Josh Brolin’s in this movie for a whole ten minutes or so, but I think he does well with what he has. I like that his character is not exactly what you expect him to be. I’ll talk a bit more about that in the Spoiler Section.
5. And for a final bit of casting: Barry Pepper plays Lucky Ned Pepper, which is cool for a couple of reasons. One, obviously, is that Pepper is playing Pepper. He probably got tired of that joke pretty damn fast. The other reason? In this film, Barry Pepper bears a strange resemblance to Robert Duvall, who played the part in the original True Grit. And this is weird because, in my mind, Barry Pepper and Robert Duvall do not look a damn bit alike . . . except here, where they totally do. It’s kind of awesome.
6. Here are some of the good things about True Grit: great cast, good dialogue, simple story, and nice cinematography.
Here are some of the problems I had with True Grit: uneven pacing, flimsy second act, and an unsatisfactory ending.
7. Let me expound on those problems a bit. True Grit’s a good film, but it seems stretched thin in the middle, like there really isn’t enough for the characters to do, at least not enough to fill up a two hour runtime. Certain scenes appear to have no significance whatsoever (ex: the bear man, the hanged man, etc) and often feel like they’ve been thrown in to, one, make the story quirkier and, two, cover the fact that the second act’s a little sparse.
8. As far as the end goes—I can’t give much detail before the Spoiler Section, but I can say that my problem isn’t with tone, exactly. I just feel like the last few scenes seem tacked on and clumsy. I didn’t like the balance with the rest of the movie.
9. On the upside, here are some of the quotes that I enjoyed:
Mattie: “But we promised to bury that poor soul inside.”
Cogburn: “Ground’s too hard. Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer.”
Ned: “Most girls like to play pretties, but you like guns, do you?”
Mattie: “I do not care a thing about guns. If I did, I would have one that worked.”
Mattie: “Why did they hang him so high?”
Cogburn: “I don’t know. Possibly in the belief it’d make him more dead.”
Lawyer: “Did you find a bottle with a hundred and twenty-five dollars in it?”
Other Lawyer: “Objection, your Honor. Leading.”
Judge: “Sustained. Rephrase the question.”
Lawyer: “What happened then?”
Cogburn: “I found a bottle with a hundred and twenty-five dollars in it.”
Guy: “If you would like to sleep in a coffin, it would be all right.”
10. Finally, this is yet another “Carlie-Cannot-Understand-Anything-Anyone-Is-Fucking-Saying” film. Of course, Jeff Bridges delivers almost all of his dialogue in a slurry, drunken mess of vowel sounds—that’s pretty much to be expected, given the character—but Steinfeld’s also hard for me to hear on occasion, due to the low pitch of Mattie’s voice. And whatever the fuck Brolin is doing with his voice . . . sometimes, it’s more like caveman grunts than actual words, I swear.
Now, Matt Damon, he was supposed to be my saving grace, the one character I didn’t have to fight to understand the whole time. . . but then the character injures his tongue halfway through the film, and once again Carlie is like, “. . . what?”
Should’ve put the fucking subtitles on.
The film begins with Adult Mattie’s voiceover, and I had two reactions to this narration almost instantaneously: one, I didn’t care for Adult Mattie at all, and two, I was relieved that Mattie probably wouldn’t die during the movie.
See, as being both an avid movie lover and an overanalytical bastard, I’m usually pretty good at watching a film and pointing out which characters are going to die and how they’re going to do it. My overanalytical nature is something of a curse, however, because sometimes I find myself so overwhelmed by the possibilities that I can give reasons for how every single character would die, like Character A can die nobly, but only if Character B makes it out alive, or Character C and Character D can either live or die, but they won’t kill off only one of them; they’ll live or die together. Because of this, I will sometimes be expecting a bloodbath that totally doesn’t happen. Case in point: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. I could have made up whole charts detailing who could have died, who couldn’t have died, and how each of these deaths would have played out.
So, before I even took True Grit out of its little Netflix sleeve, I figured that anyone could potentially be killed off, even fourteen-year old Mattie. These are the Coen brothers we’re talking about, after all. I wouldn’t put it past them to axe a young, teenage girl. However, once Adult Mattie’s narration kicked in, I was relatively certain that she would survive. Ghost narration can be pulled off, sure, but Big Twist Ghost Narration? That’s considerably more difficult.
Anyway, so Young Mattie hires a very reluctant Rooster Cogburn, who then teams up with La Beef (it’s just funnier to type than LaBoeuf). Cogburn and La Beef break up and make up a few times on the journey, and only when it seems that the trail has gone cold does Mattie stumble across Chaney alone. And while it’s been previously suggested that Chaney isn’t terribly bright (Mattie thinks that he’s a half-wit, though I suspect Mattie feels this way about most people) I was still surprised by how dumb and ordinary Chaney was. The whole movie’s been about chasing this guy down, so when you finally see him, you’re just expecting something more, somebody really villainous or cunning or crafty. Such is very much not the case here.
Mattie shoots Chaney in the arm (or the shoulder; anyway, somewhere non-lethal like that). When she tries to shoot him again, the gun misfires, and he grabs her, taking her back to Lucky Ned’s gang. Ned decides to leave both of them behind and ride out, making Chaney promise not to kill Mattie. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to find out that Chaney tries to kill Mattie not five minutes later. La Beef rescues her, awesomely knocking Chaney out and then, somewhat less awesomely, fails to tie him up or bind him in any way, shape, or form. Gee, La Beef. I hope that doesn’t come back to bite anyone in the ass in, oh, seven minutes or so.
Cogburn, meanwhile, has ridden after Ned and his boys. They all face off, and Cogburn kills most of them before ending up on the ground at Ned’s mercy. Ned’s about to shoot Cogburn’s face off when La Beef takes him out with his mad sniper rifle skills. He gets about .06 seconds to celebrate said skills before the unbound and now very conscious Chaney takes him out with a giant ass rock. Whoops.
Thankfully, Mattie doesn’t need to be rescued this time. She shoots Chaney’s ass off a fucking cliffside. Unfortunately, the recoil knocks her down into a cavern or something where she is promptly bitten by a snake. Some people have all the luck.
Cogburn rescues her but has to get help since, quite naturally, the snake was quite poisonous. We get a moment to confirm that La Beef survived his encounter with the giant ass rock before Cogburn leaves him behind, whisking Mattie onto her own horse and racing to get her medical attention. To do this, he has to ride Little Blackie to death. You didn’t need a big flowchart of death to predict that one—a staple of the western genre is the death of a horse, particularly one that you take the time to introduce and name. But Cogburn makes it to a house, rouses the inhabitants with his gun, and pretty much collapses fifty feet away from it.
Fade out and then fade in on the ending that I didn’t much care for. We shoot forward twenty-five years to Adult Mattie, who I find much more irksome than Young Mattie for some reason. Mattie lost her arm from the snake bite (I do like that quite a bit) but she survived, at least, so that’s something. The voiceover informs us that she never heard from La Beef again and doesn’t know if he’s alive or not. She also loses track of Cogburn for a long time. When he finally writes to her, she goes to visit, only to find out that he has recently died. Oh, and she’s also an old maid who never married and presumably never had children. Upper! Kids, can we spell “feel good time”?
The movie ends with Mattie walking away from Cogburn’s grave, saying, “Time just gets away from us.” And . . . fin.
I didn’t mind the idea of this end, exactly. You lose touch with people, even people who were there during these huge parts of your life, and time just keeps moving on, regardless. It goes on whether you want it to or not. I don’t mind the incorporation of these ideas, and I do like that last line and shot . . . but the whole three minute end just feels kind of artificial, an awkward and badly summarized state of affairs that’s unnecessarily tacked on in an attempt to give the film more depth. It felt out of sync with the rest of the film, and I was not a fan.
Despite problems with both the middle and the ending of the film, I really enjoyed True Grit. Funny, sharp, interesting western with a strong protagonist and ample gunfire.
“You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another.”
Also, don’t underestimate a fourteen year old’s desire and capability for vengeance. She will shoot you off a cliff. Everyone will cheer.