Sometime in the last years of the Wild West, in the late 1800s, a tenacious 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (fetching newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), arrives on the train by herself at a remote frontier town next to Choctaw Territory. Shae has received word that her father was killed by a notorious outlaw, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), but the local sheriff didn’t bother to go after him over in “Indian Nation” land. Mattie’s mom, whom we never meet, has apparently just resigned herself to raising her other children alone.
Mattie, however, wants revenge, and is determined to arrange it. She marches right into the livery office and carries on some tough negotiations with the horse trader there who’d sold a herd of mustangs to her father. She wants that sale remanded, compensation for her father’s horse, and the fair market value of the outlaw’s horse. The flabbergasted merchant eventually, under threat of lawsuit (Mattie has a lawyer friend back home), hands over enough money to Mattie for her to hire a deputy marshal, “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s murderer and bring him to justice. Along the way, they meet a Texas Ranger, La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who is also hunting Chaney, to bring him back to Texas on charges of murdering a state senator in Waco. Of course, neither the marshal nor the ranger wants the girl along for the ride, but she will not be deterred. And she has a sharp tongue on her, as well.
As Cogburn shows himself to be a old drunk who may indeed have had “true grit” at one time, but now appears thoroughly dissolute, and La Boeuf can’t seem to get over his patronization of Mattie, even spanking her for insolence (an uncomfortable scene to watch), and the trail for Chaney grows cold, the great adventure seems to be turning into a fool’s errand. Chaney appears to have joined up with the notorious gang of “Lucky” Ned Pepper (fittingly played by veteran character actor Barry Pepper), and Mattie begins to despair of ever crossing paths with Tom Chaney, when suddenly and unexpectedly, she does: at a river where they’re both watering their horses.
True to Wild West adventures, the scenery is pristine, the silences are long and languorous (except when Cogburn gets chatty-drunk), and the violence is sudden and ruthless. Jeff Bridges is as unforgettable in this role as John Wayne was in the original; he produces an if-there-was-any-doubt-about-it coming-of-age experience,
Directors Ethan and Joel Coen decide to give us a “postscript” at the end, when Mattie is now grown and Rooster is doing some touring Wild West Show (reminiscent of Wild Bill Hickok) and the whole era is consigned to some nostalgic place in the memory, except, of course, that the pragmatic Mattie is still not romantic about anything or anyone. But she does look back with fondness on the one time when they were all called upon to show “true grit”—as do we. Giddy up, Padnah.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, Texas