The other night, I got to see an advance screening for the Coen brothers‘ latest, the revisionist Western True Grit. The movie was no Fargo or No Country For Old Men, but it was still predictably excellent. It also bore only the faintest resemblance to whatever commercial blockbuster this TV spot is supposed to be advertising:
If all you knew about the movie was what you gleaned from that ad, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a movie starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon as virile, brass-balled violence factories who spend the first half of the movie dealing out justice on behalf of a plucky but defenseless little girl, and the second half rescuing aforementioned plucky but defenseless little girl from Josh Brolin.
What that leaves out is that said plucky but defenseless little girl–who, incidentally, is named Mattie Ross and played by the superb Hailee Steinfeld–is the star of the show. She appears in nearly every scene. Her narration opens and closes the film. And most importantly, “plucky but defenseless” is a terrible misnomer. What young Miss Ross is, in fact, is a total baller. If Bridges’ U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn or Damon’s Ranger La Boeuf can be said to have true grit, the same applies to her in equal or greater measure.
Don’t get me wrong: One of the movie’s many pleasures is watching Bridges sink his teeth into the role of an iconic Western lawman. He plays the part with a perfect mix of brutality and laconic wit, but only half of the time. For the other half, his character is a pathetic, washed-up drunk. And as for Damon? The Coens rarely pass up an opportunity to tweak La Boeuf’s vanity and lack of self-awareness. These aren’t the impervious übermenschen you see in most Hollywood films, and there are several key scenes where Mattie actually towers over both of them.
So here’s hoping that, despite an advertising campaign pitched (as always) to adolescent boys, the movie finds an audience among teenage girls. If I had a 14-year-old daughter who wasn’t too squeamish about onscreen mutilation, this would be mandatory viewing for her. It stars exactly the sort of female role model Hollywood needs more of: one who is not an object for men to desire and fight over, but a delicately shaded character with agency, resourcefulness, determination and grit.
(And, by the way, the original 1969 film version of True Grit, which starred John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and 23-year-old Kim Darby as a 16-year-old Mattie, can be read as pretty darn feminist, too.)
True Grit opens on December 22 2010.