Dialogue is the centrifuge around which this western and its characters find themselves willful ensnared, traps of their own verbal rendering. The materials for these contraptions were constructed by directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and the book of the same name on which True Grit is based.
The matriarchal Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) carries herself like an old soul but is an apparition encased in a fourteen year old’s body, much to the vexation of the actual adults she encounters. Steinfeld’s performance, in the way she composes Mattie and the minutiae of her characteristics, give off what her acting pedigree and stature contradict.
Most if not all of characters pause and stare when Mattie speaks verbosely with determination, force, and eloquence. This is not because of her word choice, though she was obviously well-educated like Édouard de Villefort in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, defaulting to Latin to fully express herself. It is because her demanding life has matured her that a versed framework laces all of her words. Mattie doesn’t seem to care about her age or see it as a limitation toward daunting situations or actions. She talks to adults as if the two of them are equals, never subordinating herself. Though she speaks with maturity she lacks the tact that would have come with it naturally through the aging process.
Mattie is more intelligent than most of the characters in the film, allowing her to dominate verbal confrontations. Much like Ruby Thewes from Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain, Mattie Ross also displays copious amounts of G.U.M.P.T.I.O.N., which should not be confused with bravery as Dan Brown’s Hassassin said in Angels and Demons. “Bravery without experience is suicide” and Mattie Ross displays much suicidal bravery in her pursuit of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She seems obtuse to how perilous it is to pursue a “half wit” that has killed multiple people and whom possesses no compunction to initiating more havoc. Matched in that bellicose proclivity is rust box-speaking U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).
Cogburn’s perspicacity to “leave hats on the floor” is brought to light during the trial scene in the film. His testimony during this trial is also one of three times during which True Grit the film stops and a stage play begins. It is not Cogburn whom is on trial during this scene but his character and it is that element of Cogburn that comes through in his testimony.
A second time where True Grit the film stops and a stage play begins is when Mattie confronts Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), who sold Mattie’s decreased father a gaggle of horses. This is the first instance where Mattie’s intelligence and verbal dominance are shown. She is also revealed in this scene as being calculating, and having a shrewd eye for negotiation. Who is in control of their discourse is as apparent as whom has less “sand”, that person soon retreating, chagrined, and backed trembling into a corner of possible litigious entanglement.
A third time True Grit the film stops and a stage play begins is during the bedroom, boarding house scene between Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and Mattie. Mattie’s lack of tact and forceful nature insight anger in LaBoeuf, a cowboy, law man, and a man unaccustomed to being talked down to and criticized by a child, an insolent, female child at that. In the time period of 1892 America, this was probably flabbergasting. As their conversation proceeds, Mattie loses more and more respect for LaBoeuf and has no prohibition against showing it. As “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) later remarks in the film about Mattie: “You do not varnish your opinion.”
The slang and lingo in True Grit are period appropriate and past events (historical or otherwise) are spoken of as they were in HBO’s Deadwood and George P. Cosmatos’ Tombstone: Nothing is explained. Everything they speak of is common knowledge to the people in that time period. A glimmering scriptural fault to some but to others such occurrences in a period piece film are strengths.
Odd characters (i.e. Bear Man / Dr. Forrester, played by Ed Lee Corbin) and quite moments of characters exposition are to be found in True Grit, as in many Coen Brother films like No Country for Old Men.
In comparison to the first adaptation of Charles Portis’ book starring John Wayne and Kim Darby, with its trite, impeccably happy Hollywood ending (I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if the book ends in the same way) and its happy drunk, the latest version is far bleaker. The Coens’ True Grit has a near degenerate, pathetic drunk as the supporting protagonist and an unexpectedly dark ending, the prophetic words of Mattie Ross’ attorney J. Noble Daggett (J. K. Simmons): “Your head strong ways will lead you into a tight corner one day” becoming a reality. Like I said, I haven’t read the book this film is based on yet so I cannot say if the book ends in the same fashion.
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s True Grit is a western more about its characters and their motivations than its action sequences. This is nearly the opposite of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West where atmosphere, music, cinematography, and action were its most deliberate attributes. Maybe this is why True Grit (2010) begins with a dead body on a rural street and ends with one after its burial.