For centuries, history and society have perpetuated the idea that not only are women the weaker sex, but that young women in particular are helpless, and need a strong man to protect them from evil. What it takes to overcome tribulation, regardless of sex, is character – the desire and willpower to do what needs to be done. The weakest among us resort to concession and capitulation to solve problems in the quickest and easiest fashion. In the Joel and Ethan Coen adaptation of Charles Portis’ True Grit, their protagonist, Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld, isn’t one of these people.
At the start of the film, fourteen-year-old Mattie learns that her father has been gunned down in the street by a drunken lout named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Local law enforcement is unwilling to act because Chaney has escaped into dangerous Indian Territory, but Ms. Ross seeks revenge and wants to see her father’s murderer pay for his crime. While many young women in her position might be lost in grief and seek comfort from an adult, Mattie instead hires a U.S. Marshall/itchy trigger finger named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her bring in the man who took so much away from her.
Despite her strength and fortitude, Mattie is very much human and, unlike other characters in the same vein, understands it. Thoroughly headstrong, Mattie knows when to throw her weight around, but Steinfeld also plays her as someone entirely aware of the limitations that come with age. The film doesn’t begin with Mattie trotting out on horseback into Indian Territory and the town sheriff chasing after her, insisting that she hire someone to help her. In their brilliant construct of the character, the Coens have made her bold, not brash. Instead, Mattie’s first course of action is to find someone to assist her in tracking down Chaney. True grit isn’t about pride.
Often with the acknowledgment of weakness comes a revelation of inner strength, and in Mattie's case it's the clarity of knowing exactly what she wants that makes her strong. Joining her pursuit of Chaney is a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who has been on the villain’s trail for years without success. But rather than working together, their different goals drive them apart – La Boeuf wants to take Chaney to Texas to be tried for the murder of a senator. What makes Mattie Ross such a dazzling character is that her anger is not wanton, it’s specific. She wants to see Chaney either hanged for the murder of Frank Ross or killed by her own hand. True grit isn’t about compromise.
The film’s greatest hurdle is reality. Few could imagine modern teenagers riding into the desert to hunt their father's killer, but Steinfeld’s amazing performance and the Coens’ ability to maintain authenticity sustains the story's credibility. Time and again Mattie is caught in confrontation with people several years her senior, but Steinfeld is unflinching and seems to possess the same steel backbone as her character. In true Coen brothers fashion, these moments are also frequently humorous, but they’re never done overtly; instead they rely on how amazing it is to watch a fourteen-year-old girl completely dominate the people standing in the way of her goals. True grit isn’t about backing down.
The story itself isn’t complex, in classic western style, but at no point feels as though it needs to be. It’s a traditional tale of retribution at its core, but what elevates the film is its approach and the characters, replacing as it does the standard, mature cowboy as the conventional protagonist with a young Christian girl. Not only does her point of view alter our perception of events, but it alters the perceptions of other characters as well – things must be different if you are grizzled war veteran forced to ride with Mattie Ross as your companion on the trail.
Cogburn does have grit, but the movie's title is really a reference to the fortitude of a teenage girl. Bathed in the stunning cinematography of long-time Coen brothers collaborator Roger Deakins and a beautiful score by Carter Burwell, the film is a phenomenal and perfectly cast character piece. True grit means a lot of things, but in the hands of filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen it means one of the best movies of the year.