Mattie Ross remains one of the more captivating figures of modern western literature. At 14, she goes into the town of Ft. Smith to hire a Marshall to track down a man named Tom Chaney, who earlier shot her father dead and headed out to Indian territory. Precocious doesn’t do this girl justice: As she haggles with a livery owner over the price of horses, hires her a mean sonofabitch Marshall, negotiates prices and handles her business with unwavering conviction, she single-handedly powers the plot of Charles Portis’ novel and the two film adaptations, all without becoming overbearing, sentimental or a cheap prop in an otherwise macho detante.
As portrayed by relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, dressed in an overlarge men’s duster and ten-gallon hat filled with newspaper, she’s also quick witted and sharp as a fang — the men who run afoul of her learn quickly she is not a young woman with which to trifle. In the Coen Brothers’ remake of the classic 1969 western, Mattie is every bit the girl-woman, responsible and knowledgeable far beyond her years, but more stubborn than experienced and capable of remarkable innocence from time to time. Mattie goes on to hire Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in a role that garnered John Wayne his only Oscar), who then makes a deal with a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who’s been on Chaney’s trail for months, to track down their man together and split the sizable reward money. Chaney (Josh Brolin), meanwhile, has hooked up with a gang of thugs, lead by one of Coogan’s old adversaries, Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), and continued his crime spree.
As could be expected, Bridges attacks the role of Rooster with extreme relish, grunting and grinding his way into the character like an old man preparing to stand up from the sofa bed. Damon, for his part an extreme upgrade over original ‘actor’ Glenn Campbell, who was little more than a cleft chin and a haircut, hits the arrogant prickishness of his man, without totally losing sympathy, and the rest of the cast — especially Peppers, who, with his (prosthetic) ragged teeth and nervously twitching eyes, seems born to play a leering desperado — are all in fine fettle. The Coens never waste a role, never lazily leave bland actors in place to better highlight the heroes. In their films, everyone is pushed to the limit.
The Coens have taken an interest in the Southern prairie before, in No Country For Old Men, and they find similarly lyric visual poetry to conjure up here (one of the weaknesses of the original film being it was clearly shot in Colorado with its sweeping mountain vistas no more Arkansan than the New York skyline). But, as No Country was hard and pitiless, in Grit, they keep intact the intricate humor and stylized good-heartedness of the original. Here, the prairie shines in starlight and swirling snow, but not so much decaying morality and the inevitability of death. Instead, it is the story of a young girl having the adventure of a lifetime in service to her murdered pa. Mattie being Mattie, you get the sense — even at fourteen — she’s already acutely aware of the slippery passage of time, but that doesn’t stop her from enjoying the hell out of every minute of it. Even at the film’s sobering coda — coming some 25 years after the action — you get the sense she wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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