Monday 7 March 2022

Movie Review: True Grit (1969)

A character-driven western, True Grit thrives on an unlikely bond between a grizzled veteran and a headstrong young woman.

In 1880, dairy farmer and family man Frank Ross is on a trading trip to Fort Smith when he is killed by the coward Tom Chaney, who then escapes into the wilderness. Frank's spirited daughter Mattie (Kim Darby) seeks the services of the aging and hard-drinking Marshal Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) to bring Chaney to justice. The Marshal has a well-earned reputation for uncompromising violence, often killing fugitives instead of arresting them.

Cogburn accepts the assignment after learning Chaney is riding with wanted outlaw Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall). Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) is also hunting Chaney for another crime and partners with Cogburn, while Mattie stubbornly insists on joining the manhunt. The trio set off to track down the criminals, but capturing them will not be easy.

While the basic plot of True Grit consists of a standard quest for revenge, the Marguerite Roberts script, adapting the book by Charles Portis, is more interested in people than events. The larger-than-life, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later Marshal Rooster Cogburn is confronted by the whip-smart and unyielding Mattie, and the film is more about their connection than any fugitive hunt. Mattie repeatedly references Cogburn's true grit but displays plenty more herself, and their combined tenacity grows to formidable strength.

Director Henry Hathaway crafts the story's cadence, and dedicates about half the running time to building the foundation with character introductions. The investment is slow but also worthwhile, rounding out Mattie with an uncanny ability to negotiate every issue until she gets her way, and a propensity to display an extreme state of perpetual readiness. Meanwhile Cogburn is crusty to the point of drowning all the killings with copious amounts of alcohol, his version of one-eyed law enforcement reduced to chasing after the best available bounties. He never quite admits it, but Mattie's dogged pursuit of justice reawakens his sense of purpose. Notably, their connection evolves to the point of genuine trust and caring but also remains true to both their characters by avoiding sentimentality.

The third point in this triangle is La Boeuf, and he is less defined and suffers in comparison. His Texan ways are a target for Cogburn's steady stream of insults, and La Boeuf does not help himself with a virulently obtuse reaction to Mattie's commitment. Despite his alcohol-addled mind, Cogburn recognizes the efficacy of accommodating Mattie on the manhunt while La Boeuf is still busy spanking her with a weed.

With so much hanging on the characters, the two key actors deliver. John Wayne dominates the screen with suitably boorish presence, leveraging his persona towards setting rather than abiding by the rules of the west. It takes a special skill to avoid being steamrolled by Wayne in this form, and Kim Darby successfully emerges with an equally memorable performance. Her Mattie could have easily been irritating or overbearing; instead she is a role model of no-nonsense self confidence.

Once the chase gets going, it's a straightforward affair. Cogburn traps a couple of Pepper's associates, and soon the hunters and hunted are face to face. Give or take a snake pit and a hostage taking, the resolution is routine. The chase and shoot scenes are familiar, but True Grit resides in the people.

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