True Grit packs a punch – both with fine acting performances and cinematography that makes authenticity a hallmark of this production. Filmed in various locations in Texas but set in post-Civil War Arkansas, the terrain looks as rough-and-tumble as the characters who inhabit it. It’s the kind of place where you get to the end of the railroad line and get off and walk the rest of the way to town. Not a place for sissies! You’ll find no sissies in the main characters Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), nor in their sometimes companion, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).
This is a Coen Brothers film, so the style is starkly realistic, and, of course, there will be blood. However, none of it is gratuitous; it fits the story in terms of time and place. There’s humor, but over-all, it’s a serious story. Mattie Ross has determined to find and bring to justice Tom Cheney, the man who murdered her father. She employs a federal marshal with a reputation for bringing in his man more often dead than alive. Jeff Bridges does his usual award-worthy work as Rooster Cogburn, the whiskey-soaked lawman with no tolerance for fast-talking lawyers or anyone who doesn’t come directly to the point. He doesn’t exactly have a heart of gold, but his heart, long put away in storage, can still be touched by a 14-year-old girl who’s as tough and tenacious as he is. She may be a burr under his saddle, but the bond he feels with her is undeniable. Hailee Steinfeld gives us a Mattie who is quick-witted, intelligent, and suffers no fools, but she also shows us the vulnerable, 14-year-old kid who lurks beneath the tough veneer.
Joining them in the search, contrary to Mattie’s desire , is Matt Damon’s character LaBoeuf, a sort of hapless Texas Ranger who is also tracking Cheney to bring back to Texas to be tried for murder. Mattie wants Cheney tried in Ft. Smith for his Arkansas crime of murder. LaBoeuf messes up as often as he succeeds, but he tends to turn up at just the right time. Josh Brolin is memorable as Cheney, the brutal, dim-witted criminal. All of the roles are physically demanding, but Bridges stands out as the often drunk Cogburn who stumbles, falls, and gets hung up on furniture, but who then turns around and rides and shoots with the best of them. Actually, every performance in the film, down to the smallest walk-on part, is excellent. Consistency – yes! The harshness of frontier life, as well as the eccentricity of many who were attracted to it, is well-evoked. It’s an interesting visit to another place and time, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
The three “old pros” – Bridges, Damon, and Brolin – are all strong characters, but at the end of the film, the preview audience was buzzing with the same question: “Who’s that girl?” Steinfeld more than holds her own among the three scenery-chewers and makes you truly care what happens to her character. She’s the one with “true grit”, and she’s the one who will stick in your mind when the film’s over. The ending is not what I’d call “happy”, but viewers will find the resolution satisfying.