There’s a distinction in law between malum prohibitum and malum in se, or rather, between what is considered unlawful and what is considered evil. In a Western, you don’t have to worry about the difference. A son-of-a-bitch has it coming, whether it’s malum or not to kill him. Western lawmen are vindictive. They serve out justice. They do not enforce statutes. When a man kills a little girl’s father; it doesn’t matter why he did it, or what socio-economic forces led his morals to corrode. That son-of-a-bitch is going to get his just desserts. Never mind the moral quandary of “an eye for an eye”. In True Grit, the hero only has one eye; the better to see malum in se, the better to look at the world through a gun-sight.
Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross wants vengeance for her father’s murder. A villain named Tom Chaney is the man responsible, and Mattie wants him dead. Since it’s 1880, and Mattie lives in Arkansas, it’s possible her wish may be granted. Her fairy godmother in this case is a U.S. Marshall named “Rooster” Cogburn, who loves killing people almost as much as he loves to drink. Mattie hires Rooster for a fee of one hundred dollars. They are accompanied on their quest by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (a name he pronounces “LaBeef”), who is hunting Tom Chaney for other crimes. Since this is a Western, one should not expect that violence will prove anything other than a remedy. In the West, all hearts are staunch.
This isn’t a great movie. It doesn’t fan out in a thousand directions, like The Assassination of Jesse James. Rather, more like Young Guns, it gives you bad guys with rotten teeth, and lets you abrogate thinking. The good guys are a crotchety old man and a child who’s lost her father. This might as well be Up, with Stetsons, in terms of who we side with. Tom Chaney wears black clothes, he has a black mark on his face, and a black moustache. He couldn’t be more of a caricature if he tied Mattie to the railroad tracks. We’re watching John Wayne’s kind of Western. There is nothing revisionist about it. True Grit is so straight-forward in its story-telling it could have been made by anybody, at any time. It’s too ordinary to be a classic. All the sudden, daring qualities of the Coen brothers’ best work are absent here. The only surprising aspect is that it’s a Coen brothers’ film.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld stays back, sensibly, from the contest of accents that all the male members of the cast seem engaged in. She speaks in a way that’s plain and true and utterly beguiling, as if honest work had a voice. She’s the romance of the American West, even more so than all the cowboys; the speck of hope that won’t budge. Her pigtails might make her look like Pollyanna, but her spirit is what’s endearing. We don’t use the word “stalwart” anymore, because we’re too mollycoddled for it. Steinfeld is stalwart even in the way she wears a hat. She’s a girl whose plaits were hammered in a foundry. Her expression is found in the faces of prairie women the world over: eyes than can outlast the motherless wild.
Jeff Bridges, in contrast, is all mannerism. He seems to have found his voice in a tobacco pouch. He chews his lines until they’re gristle. His walk looks like he’s trying to shake a snake out of his boots. When Steinfeld finds Bridges sleeping in a smokehouse, it’s an apt place of lodging for such an old ham. He doesn’t do anything without trying to garner our attention. His cigarettes might as well be distress flares for all the emphasis he puts on lighting them. He might be more authentic than John Wayne in the role, but he still lords it over every scene like The Duke. Still, when you’re sixty and playing a one-man killing machine with a drink problem, it’s hard not to get carried away. Call it: Oscar winner flamboyance.
The movie industry needs to make a distinction between films which are Oscar worthy and films which win Oscars. True Grit is a good example of a well-crafted gewgaw that should not win an Academy Award. It takes no risks, displays no originality, and provokes no new thoughts. Instead, it earns plaudits because all the trappings are right. To phrase it the way Mattie Ross would phrase it: The Assassination of Jesse James is a stallion, and the Academy heaps laurels on a mule. This movie was made because Joel and Ethan Coen knew they could get the money to make it. That doesn’t make it bad, as in “evil”; but it does make it bad, as in “I don’t approve”. No movie should win praise for steering clear of trouble.