The unique 'Best Film Nominee' illustration from the BAFTA brochure beautifully evokes the feel of the film

True Grit ends as it begins, with a consideration of death.  Beyond any of the individual characters it introduces us to, then dispatches, the death the film is really concerned with is the death of The Old West.

I must confess a vested interest.  I have written extensively on The Coens in the past and consider them to be the greatest film-makers working today.  That puts a real burden of responsibility on them which, at least so far, they don’t seem to have buckled under.  Whew.  They can be very variable in their output, ranging from the world-beating magnificence of No Country For Old Men (2007) to the good-natured eccentricities of Burn After Reading (2008) via the simply incomprehensible A Serious Man (2009).  One never knows which way the pendulum will swing, will their next film be a screwball comedy, a fantasy or a gritty crime drama.

Well, True Grit is, as its title might suggest, a very gritty, very dramatic film heaving with crime.  It features career-defining performances and is purely and simply majestic.  Although the year is yet young, this is the film of the year and I don’t see anything coming over the horizon to challenge that.  Except maybe Twilight.

The film’s extraordinarily evocative opening shot fades in gradually, like a developing photograph, an old photograph, shrouded in shades of sepia.  It is accompanied by the narration of an old woman, looking back at her lost youth, her lost father and, of course, the lost West.

How does the saying go?  ‘In the midst of life, we are in death’.  Well, that is definitely the case for young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who, at the tender age of fourteen, finds herself taking on the responsibility of dealing with her father’s estate after his violent and untimely death.  She very soon finds herself sleeping with corpses at the mortuary and, as her quest to avenge her father develops; pretty much everyone she meets is murdered or maimed.  But then, this is a revenge tragedy and, as the name suggests, they rarely end happily. 

That's one bad hat, Hailee

Mattie describes her night in the mortuary as being “… like Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones” but, unlike the bones in the Bible story, these skeletons don’t come back together with tendons and flesh and skin.  However, when Mattie later finds herself surrounded by more bones, they do come to life in a very Biblical way.

Commentators wiser than I have noted that, in the Old West, what literacy there was likely came from reading the only book everyone out there was likely to encounter: The King James Bible.  It would influence everything, from the way people thought to the very words they spoke, and so it is here.  The Coens have long demonstrated a love for precise, often complex, occasionally arcane dialogue and this film gives them ample opportunity to indulge that love, with poetic, florid and deliciously illustrative language issuing from practically every mouth.  I won’t steal the best lines; feel free to discover them yourself.

So the film is rich with its Biblical texture and atmosphere heavy with death.  Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a man steeped in death.  He is described, before his entrance, as “a pitiless man, double tough …” and, when he does appear, he is being grilled in a court about the twenty-two men he has killed in his four years of duty as a Marshall.  This is why Mattie chooses him to be the agent of her vengeance; she wants an irredeemable man with no fear of killing.  

A pitiless man and double tough, if you're not into the whole brevity thing.

Mattie herself is utterly merciless in her determination, she destroys a poor horse-trader by out-witting him with her remorseless logic and rapier-sharp mind and, when the Texas Ranger, Le Boeuf (Matt Damon), introduces himself by entering her bedroom, he is proud and preening and patronising and she effortlessly outwits him, though only half awake.  This not simply a quest for blood for Mattie, her revenge is philosophical, even intellectual … She discusses with Rooster the definition of malum in se, a crime which is wrong in itself, a crime which is, essentially, against God’s Law.

Her two adult protectors have far simpler motivations than she, pride in LaBoeuf’s case, cash money in Rooster’s.  Out on the range, the two cowboys bicker like little girls while the little girl with them is the constant voice of maturity reason, but that’s fourteen-year-olds for you.  When he is alone (and at a good distance from a gin bottle) Rooster gets to show her his considerable tracking skills while they ride through an ever-changing landscape, as though passing through the levels of Hell, taking them ever nearer to Mattie’s prey, the cowardly murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).

As usual in a Coen film, the violence is sudden, messy and definitive and the resulting corpses are generally treated with a cold disregard.  As Rooster ruminates, when considering the four men he has killed, all lying on the frozen ground: “They wanted a decent burial; they shoulda got themselves killed in the summer”.

Without wishing to discuss the film’s dénouement in too much detail, it is fair to say that it is satisfyingly bloody and Biblical, and leads to Rooster taking on a burden of responsibility which, before meeting Mattie, he probably wouldn’t have shouldered, and which earns him the redemption he doesn’t particularly want.

I love the period feel the publicity people have given to the teaser posters.

And so, our tale of the Old West ends as it began, bathed in sepia light and fading into memory.  This leaves only the film’s coda – and the point where this version and the John Wayne original part company most significantly – which considers how, by the early years of the 20th century, the legends of the Old West, such as Cogburn, Younger and James, have become a sideshow attraction.  An ignominious reward for those who carry the wounds of a nation’s birth-pains.

Once again, the Coens have hewn-out a masterpiece.  Every line of dialogue, every moment, is rich with detail and significance and I am sure that deeper layers of subtext will offer themselves to me as I re-watch the film many, many times over the coming years.  It needed brave directors to take on territory already charted by Henry Hathaway and, as for the main role … The Duke won his only Oscar for this role, although it was really in recognition of his whole career … Possibly the only man big enough to fill those boots was The Dude, fresh from winning his own career Oscar. 

Bridges’ performance retains the gruff exterior of Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake, but, unlike that role, Rooster is utterly incapable of communicating his feelings.  This comes across by turns as hilariously funny and deeply tragic when, for example, his desperate insecurity in front of LaBoeuf drives him into a destructive drinking binge.

But the performance of the film and, to my mind, the performance of the year, is Hailee Steinfeld’s.  She is the age Jodie Foster was when she was Oscar nominated for Taxi Driver (1976), and has a similar towering confidence on screen.  This will take her a long way and, if there’s any justice that doesn’t have to be taken at the muzzle of a gun, it will take her all the way up to the podium to accept her gold statue on Sunday the 27th.

Dir: Joel Coen
Stars:  Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin
Dur: 110 mins
Cert: 15


  1. Excellent review m'lord, of an excellent film.

    Why Hailee Steinfeld is up only for best supporting when she is unquestionably the film's lead makes less sense than the plot of A Serious Man (Perhaps to avoid the Portman juggernaut?). A simply amazing performance that makes Mattie one of the best female protagonists in recent memory.

    My other favourite character in the film was Feral, an outlaw in Ned Pepper's gang, who's only lines of dialogue consisted of animal noises. Pure Coen.

  2. Thank you, sir. I agree whole-heartedly about Ms Steinfeld being a lead actor but, as you say, the lead role is always a more hotly contested Oscar than Supporting. Furthermore, no one remembers whether you won for lead or for supporting (or for eight minutes of screen-time) but simply that you won.

    She is now (and will forever be) at the very least 'Oscar Nominee Hailee Steinfeld'.

    Thing is ... Everyone does there best work in a Coen film. I suspect, for a lot of actors, simply getting the call is accolade enough.

    Feral was something else and, in typical Coen manner, there wasn't a word of explanation. He just is what he is.