An especially solid Western that nevertheless feels like a departure of sorts for the Coen brothers, 2010’s True Grit is more or less as good as Henry Hathaway’s 1969 original starring John Wayne. But it’s in pretty good territory if my only reservations are (a) it’s a remake and (b) it’s told in a more straightforward fashion, minus some of the quirkiness or offbeat humor, than we’ve come to expect from the Oscar-winning filmmakers.
Fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is out for blood; her father has been murdered by hired hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and Mattie wants to deliver revenge, knowing the law isn’t likely to satisfy. Looking for a man with “true grit,” she’s recommended to U.S. Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a slovenly, eyepatch-wearing drunk who has somehow managed to survive to a ripe old age after years tracking and killing outlaws.
Cogburn initially refuses to help her, but eventually relents; he’s joined by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who has been hunting Chaney for his crimes in another state. Against their wishes, Mattie insists on accompanying them as they travel through Indian territory in search of Chaney, who has joined up with a gang of outlaws headed by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).
Bridges is fine as the drunken bounty hunter, but Wayne was Wayne and no fine performance can shake his image when the name Rooster Cogburn is uttered. Bridges disappears into the role and lets the character take over, in a performance full of grunts and groans and occasionally inaudible dialogue that has earned him an Oscar nomination (Wayne won the prize for the original).
Steinfeld, on the other hand, makes the film. Many have highlighted her haggling scene with horse trader Dakin Matthews, which indeed stands out, but it’s her interactions with Bridges and Damon and (by the end) Brolin and Pepper that lend a much-needed dimension to their roles; the Mattie Ross character is almost one-note in her quest for vengeance, but it’s Steinfeld’s presentation of the young girl burdened by this quest that makes a difference. The actress has been nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar (despite clearly being the lead here), and might surprise with a win.
Cinematography by Roger Deakins beautifully captures the Old West in all its grime and glory, the gritty living conditions balanced out by gorgeous untouched vistas; it’s not always a pretty film to look at, but it feels genuine. Coming up empty after eight Oscar nominations, Deakins is expected to (deservedly) take the prize this year.
True Grit is the Coen brothers’ second remake; it follows The Ladykillers, widely regarded as their worst. It puzzles me why talented directors sometimes choose these projects; I don’t think anyone was clamoring for a remake of True Grit, and whether the Coen’s admired the original film or wanted to improve on it, or more faithfully adapt Charles Portis’ novel, a cinematic version had already been done and done well (even iconically).
While watching their version of True Grit, which is clearly superior in many definable ways to the original, I couldn’t help shake the fact that this was more or less the same film, and an important element of the cinematic experience had been lost.
But if an element of surprise, or originality, is lost, the Coens deliver riches elsewhere: they’re fine craftsmen who expertly stage important scenes as complex as a nighttime cottage raid or simple as a brief courtroom discourse, and the film travels at perfect pace. Most important is the grit: the exceedingly authentic atmosphere, which transports us back to a specific time and place of dirt and violence the way few John Wayne pictures could.