The Dude abides. And so too does True Grit‘s Cogburn – taking a back-seat to the charismatic girl at the centre of its story.
Equipped with only her silver tongue, precocious 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) poetically talks her way past male authority, securing a deal with drunken U.S marshal Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to track down the man who killed her father. Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) is not only chased by this unlikely duo, as Texan LeBeouf (Matt Damon) hunts him on a separate charge through the vast landscapes of late 19th-century Oklahoma.
The role of ‘Rooster’ Cogburn had produced John Wayne’s only Academy Award in a previous adaptation of the book, from which this film is based. So knowingly Bridges does all he can to parody this known anti-hero and provide a performance free of comparison. The first glimpse of this character materialises from distant mumbles that echo from a courtroom: the camera working its way through the corridor and closer to him, though no clarity is gained as his voice remains a grumbled slur. Aged, fat and intoxicated, Cogburn is a comedic outlet for the film, though his indecipherable mutterings become somewhat irritating after ten minutes.
The majority of male characters in True Grit have a vocal impediment: from Cogburn’s anecdotal wheezes to a cowboy who communicates solely through animal noises. These impairments serve to amplify Mattie’s confident articulation. Through her incessant, rambling charm the Cohen brothers have attached a recognisable flair to dialogue that is supposedly taken straight from the novel.
With continuous witticisms delivered throughout, True Grit is more of a comedy than it lets on. There are the occasional Cohen-esque moments of violence that offer the grittiness promised in the title, but they seem to be trying too hard to recapture the tone of No Country For Old Men, only to discard it again in favour of some fast paced, half-funny dialogue. A feat which is only pulled-off due to the attention-grabbing performances of Bridges and Steinfeld.
Jeff Bridges’ contemptuous approach to Cogburn is both aggravating yet captivating – he harbours a surprising charm beneath his obnoxious demeanour. Nonetheless, his scenes are stolen from beneath him by Hailee Steinfeld, flaunting a confidence that resonates with her character. This feature debut warrants, if not demands, recognition.
True Grit provides an amazing starting platform for this prodigious talent but without her, one can’t help but feel that the film would lack an appeal. The numerous quips and moments of gore unable to fill the Steinfeld shaped hole.