Until very recently, I wouldn’t have had much interest in seeing a Western. I’ve channel-surfed past many an orange-tinted desert shootout in my day. Then I took Intro to CAMS. As it turns out, the Western is one of the most basic genres in cinema. Like any genre, I suppose, it has its good and bad examples, and I was finally exposed to the good ones. The films we watched were Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), early and late works of director John Ford. Now I’m by no means a Western fanatic, but I’m a definite appreciator of the genre.
Thanks to my Western enlightenment, I was excited for the Coen Brothers version of True Grit. Having not yet seen the original, I could happily approach the movie with a clean slate. It had many points in its favor, with Oscar-nominated performances and the Coen Brothers at the helm. But this is more than just Oscar-bait — it’s a straight-up great film.
Carol Donelan, my CAMS professor, told us that if we wanted to learn how to tell stories, look at the works of John Ford. A good Western is so much more than an excuse for the actors to look tough and sling guns. That’s what True Grit has in common with those classic Westerns. It employs memorable characters and dialogue in the act of telling a meaningful story. The characters rarely use contractions when they speak, which some people might find off-putting, but I thought it gave the dialogue a charming formality. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon are perfect foils as the gritty U.S. Marshall and by-the-book Texas Ranger. Matt Damon so often plays the strong leading man, but here he isn’t above playing the fool.
Really, though, the film belongs to Hailee Steinfeld. Bravo to the Coens for casting an actual 14-year-old in the role of Mattie Ross. That way she had to truly project determination and maturity beyond her years, winning over the audience at the same time that she wins over Bridges and Damon. I felt bad when the men would refer to her as unattractive because in actuality she is, of course, a beautiful girl. It’s a testament to the way that she puts all vanity aside and embodies a no-nonsense female character. As it turns out, the person with “true grit” is actually her.