When Mattie Ross first meets Rooster Cogburn, it’s behind the walls of a ramshackle outhouse behind a farm house where Rooster is attempting to ward off his young hire while pushing off the runs in his privacy. He holds no pretense about keeping his respect or dignity for her nor does he try to show her his face in the midst of his groans, he just continues with his acts showing her all of the regard he thinks she deserves. When Mattie Ross finally sees Rooster he is a man she is unprepared to confront and has no idea how to approach him. He has one eye, speaks in an unintelligible mumbling monotone of voice that would indicate he is half asleep and drunken during his trial, and his recollections of pursuing and killing criminals are foggy at best. He is a man of loose morals and zero ethics, but Mattie is ready to meet Rooster and woo him with dollar signs and enthusiasm, to which Rooster is neither impressed nor amused by.
Mattie wants revenge on the man who killed her father for a horse and two gold pieces, and Rooster chuckles at her incessant propositioning. Mattie Ross is a regal and upright young woman of grace, ravishing beauty, and maturity posturing as someone with a world worn perspective, a persona she enforces among her elders and superiors that she herself doesn’t even believe in. She can barely tame a horse upon her first ride with her new pony, and is much too proud to ask for help from anyone who would know how to tame it properly. What lures Rooster to her and eventually garners his unbridled respect is her fortitude and unabashed willingness to accept the woes of the world while also charging in head first at every obstacle, which leads both of Mattie’s adult guardians to watch over her, but also undermine her efforts to be taken at their level of ilk and respect.
Lebeouf is very much in the same vein of Mattie, a young man and Texas Ranger with a keen sense of his world view who confuses bragging with wisdom and is a warrior whose own sense of insecurity and inability to read the world is what separates him from Cogburn who is too cynical to offer optimism, and too experienced to buy a single story he or his young charge Mattie offer him in attempts to convince or astonish him to their own stance of power and dominance. He knows more than either of them could ever hope to, and his hubris in lording that over them infuriates but enamors them. The journey of Mattie and Cogburn is not just a mission to avenge her father but it’s a firsthand exploration of the disgusting blackness of the human soul that is mired in cruelty, murder, and merciless acts of evil that leave Cogburn fairly unscathed, and Mattie more and more distraught the deeper she ventures alongside him.
The Coens paint this world with a sickly sardonic sense of humor and surrealism that is at once disturbing and awkward. At first Mattie is joyful with the prospect of hunting her father’s killer, greeting every opportunity for vengeance with a wide grin and joyous demeanor paired with wild fantasies of cowboys and Indians, but she soon learns that vengeance is a difficult and harrowing descent in to the dark, and everything in the world before her young eyes is not always stark blacks and rich whites. Her ultimate confrontation with the evil Tom Chaney is in typical Coen tradition where even the cruelest of villains are fueled by much more than the need for violence, and the directors provide us with menacing antagonists who are every bit as murderous as we perceive them to be, but are colorful nonetheless.
Especially Josh Brolin who is slimy as the ruthless Chaney, more than making up for his stumble in to “Jonah Hex” early this year. Though the cast is superb (Jeff Bridges is absolutely larger than life as Cogburn, a fitting successor to John Wayne), Hailee Steinfeld is given the weight of the entire Oscar caliber film, and runs away with the stand out performance of the piece holding her own against the likes of Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin alike. “True Grit” is a verbose and demented remake of a Western classic, and one that is an absolute masterpiece. The Coens are rarely individuals who play by the book and give us a typical genre outing, and “True Grit” is the very definition of their trademark surrealism and slick sense of humor injected in to an old fashioned revenge Western filled with excellent performances, and a sharp lesson about sacrifice and an eye for an eye.