By sheer luck – or bad planning turned good – the screening of True Grit I was invited to was followed by a Q&A with Joel and Ethan Coen and Hailee Steinfeld, the 14-year old whose screen presence rivals Jeff Bridges’ and Matt Damon’s. No photos were allowed at the screening (it was mostly for Producers Guild and BAFTA members), so trust me: without her braids an old-West costume, Steinfeld looked like the poised, glossy-haired young woman she is.
The Coens were the revelations, though. They were so lucid and informative in discussing the film that I can guess why actors love to work with them. Yes, informative. Although they are less publicity-shy than they used to be, you can see them clam up at dumb questions. But at that Q&A even questions that didn’t sound promising led them to some crystalline observations.
The film, of course, is not based on the 1969 John Wayne movie (not unwatchable and not any good), but on Charles Portis’ novel about a girl who sets out, with the help of eye-patched marshal Rooster Cogburn, to catch her father’s killer. Asked about the book, which is sometimes compared to Huck Finn, Joel Coen ran with the connection, saying he sees the film as “a young adult adventure” story with all the twists that suggests – Mattie falls into pit, she’s attacked by a snake.
And when asked about casting Mattie, a character wise beyond her years, Ethan Coen jumped in. “I don’t know if it’s wisdom but it’s certitude,” he said, which lasers in on what’s essential and funny about the character. She’s touchingly confident as only the innocent can sometimes be, lecturing Cogburn about his drinking, threatening to call her lawyer when anyone crosses her. That kind of absolute clarity must be a gift to actors.
The Coens might even be their own best critics, because they’re also right to say the film isn’t really a Western. To me, it’s a beautifully shot coming-of-age story: Mattie chases the villain into the grown-up world. Throughout the film, Steinfeld finds just the right pitch between child and adult. As Cogburn, Bridges never hints at a tender heart, which makes the grumpy old marshal’s increasing respect for Mattie especially affecting. And Damon adds the right touch of comic relief as a self-important Texas Ranger.
“No one has ever accused us of being realists,” Joel said, explaining why they are drawn to period pieces, in which they can swerve away from everyday naturalism. But there is a core of real, hard-won emotion in True Grit, a quality the brothers are expert at conveying, even if they don’t usually say so