Good Westerns are about performances first, and justice second. There’s an initial disbelief in any period piece, and True Grit‘s faithfulness to a 19th century Arkansas dialect doesn’t help settle the audience — its actors do. If you’re able to accept the dialogue True Grit is a good-silences-evil Western that is entertaining, and surprisingly funny.
Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) believes the film’s opening proverb: “The wicked flee when none pursueth.” This is why she hires the toughest lawman she can find, Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to pursue her father’s killer. They are also accompanied by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who hunts the same man.
Mattie Ross won’t be treated as a child or disrespected as a woman, which is unfortunate because she is both. When authority figures tell her “no,” she either finds a way to get what she wants or threatens to get her lawyer. She hires Cogburn before she has money to pay him, which she acquires by forcing an auctioneer to purchase things he doesn’t want. Like her character, Steinfeld is also fourteen and has remarkable range for someone so young. She must make us believe she is both strong willed and vulnerable, and do so speaking dialogue that baffles and alienates the audience. It’s a nuanced performance for a teenager that reveals the occasional glimmer of a woman.
Marshal Rooster Cogburn decides right and wrong based on how much whiskey is on hand. When we first see Cogburn he’s on the stand recounting his story of his most recent arrest. There’s a bright light from a window behind him. Often in films a light directly behind a character’s head indicates a special knowledge or the divine. But the light from the courtroom window doesn’t illuminate Cogburn’s head, instead it’s slightly askew to where he sits. Cogburn is not a saint, and if he had any special knowledge he probably drank it away. He’s a hilarious and oddly capable buffoon, and in a Coen Brothers movie few could embody buffoonery as well as Bridges. He slurs most of his lines through a gruff voice and is the lovable comedic center of the film.
Matt Damon’s performance will draw the least praise because it’s difficult to appreciate a character that is the butt of every joke. However, Damon’s keen portrayal of an earnest nitwit elevates his fellow actors. Damon’s character’s name, LaBoeuf, is pronounced as though it were French: “Le Beef.” We see his fancy spurs before we clearly see his face because he displays them like a vain peacock. When Mattie wakes and finds him sitting in his room, he leans back in chair as he announces his job title, and slowly reveals his Texas Ranger star as if to say, “you may swoon now.”
The Coen Brothers have an uncanny ability to translate their humour onto the screen. John Turturro called working with them a “comfortable collaborative effort … like kid’s play.” This playfulness gives humanity to the wordy dialogue, and binds the audience to the story. We approach such Coen films as children approach play; where the game ends up is never as important as the fun you have while you’re together.