For a Coen Brothers film, this Western is pretty straight forward. A young girl’s father is murdered. She seeks revenge. Her determination is undaunted. And yet this is a Coen Brothers’ film. The siblings love of language and dark humor color this compelling character study.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, TV’s SUMMER CAMP) was 14 when her father was gunned down by his worker Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). She goes to settle her father’s affairs, which includes hiring a U.S. marshal to hunt down his killer. She wants to enlist Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, THE BIG LEBOWSKI), because he is the most ruthless. But Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, THE INFORMANT!) has been tracking Chaney for killing a Texas state senator. Neither of the two men is interested in taking a young girl out to hunt down Chaney, who has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA) and his gang.
But as I mentioned, Mattie is determined. Just take her dealings with the stable owner Col. Stonebill (Dakin Matthews, THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS), who goes from wanting to dismiss the young girl to paying her $300 and selling her back one of the ponies she just sold to him. We know right from the start that she’s a tough cookie. Without enough money to stay in a hotel, he convinces the undertaker to allow her to stay at the mortuary among three corpses. It don’t mind her none.
So when Cogburn and LaBoeuf make an alliance and set out without her, they should have expected her to follow. She turns out to be a more reliable posse member than Cogburn. He’s a skilled gun fighter, but also a fall down drunk. He doesn’t take kindly to the snooty ideals of the Texas Rangers much either, which makes dealing with the proud LaBoeuf difficult. The humorous interactions between the hard-headed trio are a highlight.
Steinfeld is a great discovery. Along with WINTER’S BONE’s Jennifer Lawrence, it seems this is the year for breakout actresses playing no nonsense young woman. She rattles off the period specific dialogue like it was native to her. She goes toe to toe with Bridges and Damon and makes an impression. This is key because Mattie can’t come off like she is intimidated by these men and Steinfeld never lets that happen. Bridges gives the performance one would expect from him as a drunken Western killer, which is great. Watch his mannerisms as he rides his horse. His back straight as a board. Is this the pose of a cocky man or a drunk afraid he might fall off his horse otherwise? Damon makes LaBoeuf aloof and proper. He is the kind of actor one can rely on to bring subtle humor to a role. There is an element of the character that could have been stupidly silly, but Damon makes it a fitting comeuppance for the snob.
Another thing one can expect from a Coen Brothers’ film is tightly constructed action sequences. A shack out in the middle of nowhere provides for three tense interludes. First the tension comes from not knowing who is inside. The second comes from knowing who is inside. And the third comes from knowing who is coming.
The film is narrated by an old Mattie. Her experience with Cogburn and LaBoeuf was the pivotal moment of her life. Murder left them marred in many ways. She found in these men kindred spirits. The title of course refers to her more than any of them.