Who’s In It: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Elizabeth Marvel, Dakin Matthews
The Basics: When her father is killed by the cowardly crook Tom Chaney, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires gruff U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track him down and insists on coming along on the manhunt. Along the way, they’re joined by a dandy Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who wants to bring Chaney in to stand trial for previous crimes. As the unlikely posse gets closer to catching Chaney and the gang of robbers he’s taken up with, all three heroes find their courage tested, emblems of a bygone era in American history when having “true grit” still meant something.
What’s The Deal: In filming Charles Portis’s novel of the same name, previously adapted into a slightly less faithful 1969 John Wayne starrer, Joel and Ethan Coen have crafted a subtle masterpiece at once alike and unlike their other films. Seemingly simple and straightforward upon first glance, the handsome period Western blossoms considerably into a profound nostalgic experience, a deliberately styled homage to the great American past, its rough and honorable heroes (and villains), and to the Western genre itself. Ever present beneath the surface is that trademark dark Coen wit, played with expert precision by Bridges as a “shoot first, ask questions later” kind of lawman with a reputation for brutality and a taste for drink. But the biggest revelation of True Grit is 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who turns in an astonishing debut performance as the tenacious little girl who shows grown men what it means to have strength of character, determination, and courage in the face of impossible odds. Together, Bridges and Steinfeld make the best on-screen duo of the year, in the best film of the year.
On Honor Among Men (And Women) On Both Sides Of The Law: Each character in True Grit is morally complex and has something to prove, making for a captivating ensemble of individuals with their own internal crosses to bear. Cogburn struggles to prove that he’s not just a bloodthirsty opportunist with a lawman’s badge and constantly butts heads with La Boeuf, an honor bound officer who disdains Cogburn’s unscrupulous ways but has yet to prove his own effectiveness. Even the outlaw Ned Pepper is a walking contradiction; portrayed by Barry Pepper in one of the best supporting turns of the year, he’s a wild-eyed career criminal with deeper moral scruples than any other character in the film and also the only person who instantly gives Mattie Ross the respect she deserves.
A Retro Western With That Coen Touch: The writer-directors embrace Portis’s snappy antiquated dialogue with gusto and pepper the script with their own darkly humorous moments and eccentric characters, but it’s all tempered with a deep respect for the characters and the grand, idealistic themes of the source material. The sight that surprises Bridges’s Cogburn in the middle of a snowy forest is a comic highlight that you don’t see in the 1969 film version.
Best Supporting Score: From the very first notes of the film, longtime Coen collaborator Carter Burwell creates an aural world for characters to inhabit with a haunting spiritual score based on period hymns. (Because of the source material, Burwell’s score is ineligible for Oscar consideration.) Burwell’s lingering work does as much to construct True Grit’s majestic feeling as Roger Deakins’s cinematography, echoing the emotional currents of the story long after the credits begin to roll.