It’s a Hard World for Little Things, by Jason Eaken
There is a scene of such sharp, hard violence about half way through the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, that you fully realize the world young Mattie Ross (Hailie Steinfeld) has entered; one from which she will not return. This is more brutality than many will expect walking into this PG-13 rated remake, not much softer than the Coen’s 2007 No Country For Old Men. The violence shocked me, but their willingness to include it comforted me. I’m so tired of movies playing it safe. I’m sick of not being surprised by characters. This movie isn’t safe, and every character contains a surprise.
The story seems simple enough. When Mattie’s father is murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), she uses the family money to hire a lawman to track him down. This could have been a genre exercise, and no doubt it could have been engaging. But the film’s gold is in its details, in the roots each character has so clearly laid down for themselves. These are fully complex people with perspectives and goals that extend out and collide with and confuse and complicate each others’.
The lawman is Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, in his second (or third) performance in two weeks. He’s the best thing about going to the movies this holiday season. He is even more of a mess than Bridges’ Oscar-winning character, Bad Blake, last year (and only slightly more sober). Many would call him reckless if he weren’t so fearless; and he has skill and the intelligence his profession demands.
Complicating matters is a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who has been tracking Chaney for a while for other equally vile crimes. The film’s undeniably best scenes involve Cogburn, LaBeouf, and Mattie, who refuses to wait patiently back in town. All three characters have force and determination, and the conflicts that arise from their differences are by turns engaging, hilarious, and even sometimes moving. One of the best moments comes in a showdown between the men, both trying to prove they are the better shot. A lesser movie would have very broad beats with a simple reversal. The scene would be one of those “reveal” scenes that tells us, “Whoops, I guess things aren’t what I thought, because they’re the opposite!” Instead, the scene is funny and messy and though little is solved between them, things are revealed about them.
This is a Coen Brothers film through and through. Their trademarks are everywhere: the stark, purposed protagonist; the heightened, pitch-black comedy; the expansive, empty landscape; the forceful, explosive violence; the existential wonderings about choice, punishment, and cost – it’s all expertly on display.
If the film falters anywhere, it is in their transition into the final act of the film. It feels uncharacteristically rushed, even contrived. From that moment, things move quickly toward an unavoidable end. Perhaps the Coens wanted to keep us off balance by moving so quickly; perhaps they were following the book, but it seemed impatient. It is a brief lapse in an otherwise expertly crafted film, and it is small enough that it damages little. As their films have grown accustomed to, True Grit ends in a way some may find unsatisfying. It is undoubtedly frustrating, but the more thought given to it, the more it yields the culmination of their thesis, blood-darkened though it may be.