True Grit was released on DVD and Blu-ray this week, which affords me the chance to write about the movie that made me consider wearing my hair in tight plaits.
When Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the movie’s 14-year-old protagonist, approaches U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) with the offer to hire him to bring her father’s killer to justice, Mattie tells Rooster she’s heard he has true grit.
He’s not the only one with grit.
By the time Mattie arrives in Ft. Smith, Ark., to retrieve her father’s body, it’s obvious nothing will stop her pursuit of justice. Not a night spent in a funeral parlor sleeping alongside the corpses of three hanged men. Not a foray into Indian country. Not even Grandma Turner’s snoring.
Mattie can’t search for the killer alone. She needs Rooster and, possibly, LaBouef (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger with a fondness for bombastic talk, buckskin clothing and spurs.
LaBouef’s garb leads to my favorite line in the movie. When Mattie awakens and finds LaBouef in her room, he says he has been to her home in Yell County. And Mattie says, “We have no rodeo clowns in Yell County.”
The insult is made all the more hilarious because of LaBouef’s high regard for the Rangers and all things Texas. Damon’s portrayal reminds me of self-important athletes and politicians who refer to themselves in third person. Only in this case, his job as a Ranger has morphed into his personality.
Rooster’s behavior also yields a fair share of humor. When he’s testifying in court or recounting his past to Mattie in an ambling and amusing manner, you’re not sure how this charming one-eyed fat man could be capable of the violence he’s sworn to.
But Rooster is capable of great violence and when the situation warrants, he “loves to pull the cork.”
It’s a testament to Bridges that we see several facets of Rooster’s personality including a harmless fool, a mean, nasty drunk, a menacing murderer who masquerades as a lawman and a father figure.
It’s also a testament to the Coen Brothers’ visual and narrative storytelling as well as to their longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins. At times, Rooster is framed as heroic; at others, as a pitiable man past his prime. The Coens are master storytellers — they faithfully adapted the Charles Portis’ novel — and they paced True Grit to perfection.
They also cast True Grit to perfection. Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper round out the cast in brief but pivotal roles, but Steinfeld, who made her feature film debut, is the movie’s star.
When I think about her performance as Mattie, three scenes demonstrate her flawless effort. The first occurs after the sheriff describes Rooster as the meanest marshal. Mattie smiles slyly and says, “Where can I find this Rooster?”
The second comes when LaBouef rides away in a huff after a spat with Rooster. With an expression that betrays her fearless determination, Mattie asks, “We don’t need him, do we, Marshal?”
The third takes place as they leave the little cabin, the sight of much bloodshed. When Mattie silently looks back, her young face questions everything that has happened and wonders what is yet to come.
By movie’s end, Mattie has sacrificed much in her pursuit of justice and we’re reminded of something the adult Mattie noted earlier in her narration, “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another.”