True Grit (United States, 2010)December 19, 2010
True Grit, one of the best films of 2010, is a reminder of why remakes are not always bad. The Coen Brothers' interpretation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel is superior in almost every way (except one) to the 1969 Henry Hathaway edition. And, while no actor could hope to eclipse the iconic performance of John Wayne as Marshall Rooster Cogburn (the role for which he won his only Oscar), Jeff Bridges makes the part his own, if only for about two hours. With stronger overall acting, a tighter script, and better production design, True Grit 2010 surpasses its predecessor as the definitive adaptation of the novel and stakes out a place in the hall of fame of American Westerns.
True Grit is a tale of vengeance in the Old West (Oklahoma, around the end of the 19th century, to be specific) - that of 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) for her murdered father. The culprit is a drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin); in the wake of the crime, he flees into "Indian Territory" and joins up with a gang fronted by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Not dissuaded by the indifference of local law enforcement, Mattie seeks out the one-eyed, tough-as-nails drunkard Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to act as a bounty hunter. Although initially not interested, Cogburn changes his mind when Mattie offers an attractive reward. Also accompanying Mattie and Cogburn is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger hunting Chaney for the assassination of a Senator.
As one might expect, some bonding occurs between Mattie and Cogburn, but it's not the sentimental, over-the-top variety one often finds in movies that throw two mismatched individuals together. Cogburn grows to admire Mattie's straightforward approach and ability not to flinch when things get rough. Mattie learns to see beneath the whiskey and recognize that Cogburn can be heroic when the circumstances warrant. LaBoeuf factors into the chemistry of the unusual posse but, because he's a less interesting individual than either of his companions, he often fades into the background.
The Coen Brothers have stated, with some justification, that their version of True Grit is closer to the source material than Hathaway's. However, with the exception of the ending, which was significantly reworked for the 1969 movie, most of the differences are small. The tone is darker and more sardonic. An attempt is made to stick closer to Mattie's point-of-view (something difficult in the original due to the participation of a star of Wayne's magnitude). The pacing is tightened. And the violence is more graphic - something to be expected in 2010 over 1969, although the Coens, in a rare example of restraint, limit the content enough to achieve a PG-13 rating. It wouldn't have taken much more to tip this to an R.
True Grit is a Western but, unlike many members of the genre, the tone is lighthearted. It's not a comedy but, like the book and the 1969 film, instances of levity are sprinkled throughout. One trademark of the Coen Brothers is their ability to generate laugh-inducing moments from seemingly grim situations, and that's in evidence here. Much of the humor is low-key and exists side-by-side with the drama and adventure of the story, but it's impossible to miss. One example is when Mattie haggles over the money she's owed by Col. Stonehill (played here by Dakin Matthews and previously by Strother Martin) - she runs circles around the older and craftier man who never expects to be bested in such a match by a 14-year old girl.
The Coens have re-created the Old West in loving detail. It comes to life on screen in a way that was not the case in the 1969 True Grit. The town of Fort Smith, Arkansas feels less like a cliché and more like a genuine habitation. It's a bustling place, evolving from the ramshackle locale popularized in many Westerns into a more modern, civilized place. However, as a triple hanging early in the movie indicates, justice is still brutal, and men like Cogburn are needed in a land that has not quite been tamed.
The performances are across-the-board good, with several actors - Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld - easily outstripping the work of their predecessors. In fact, as memorable as Kim Darby was as Mattie, Steinfeld surpasses her, delivering the mannered dialogue with ease and bringing a passion that Darby lacked. Damon, surprisingly working for the first time with the Coens (he has collaborated with seemingly every other high profile filmmaker), settles comfortably into a supporting role, representing LaBoeuf as a less confrontational figure than the one essayed by Glen Campbell. Brolin, appearing in his second Coen Brothers film (following No Country for Old Men), lends Chaney more humanity and more menace than the character exuded when portrayed by Jeff Corey.
Then there's Jeff Bridges, whose previous outing for the Coens was as "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski. Here, he has the unenviable job of filling John Wayne's shoes. He does this in the smartest fashion possible - by paying subtle homage to the Duke (usually in little things, like mannerisms) while not attempting to ape the portrayal. It's a testimony to Bridges' capability as an actor as well as the decisions he made in crafting this interpretation that we accept him as Cogburn and don't spend the 110 minute running time missing Wayne. Essaying an iconic performance can be a thankless job fraught with pitfalls. Bridges finds the smoothest path between the bumps and ruts.
It would be surprising if True Grit does not receive substantial Oscar attention; however, the likelihood that Bridges will match Wayne in winning a Best Actor statuette for Cogburn is small, especially when one considers that Wayne's victory was in part a career acknowledgment. Still, there are other areas in which at least the honor of a nomination is deserved. The Coens have fashioned one of the best Westerns in recent years - a modern reworking of a classic that never feels superfluous.
True Grit (United States, 2010)
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures