John Wayne still has such high standing as a film icon these days that the idea of remaking one of his films, least of all the one which netted him his only Oscar, can seem to some of us like a bit of blasphemy. But Joel and Ethan Coen have never been shy, and with their remake of True Grit, they easily eclipse the original and deliver one of their best films.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld stars as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-girl who shows up in Fort Smith, Ark., looking to avenge the death of her father, who was robbed and murdered by a villainous coward named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).
When she discovers that nobody has much interest in tracking down Chaney, she decides to engage the services of a federal marshal. She is told the meanest one is Deputy U.S. Marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a drunken, one-eyed profligate who is as pitiless as he is deadly, when he isn’t at the bottom of a bottle (it’s never discussed why he’s called “Rooster;” maybe because he’s cockeyed).
Mattie also meets LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who is on Chaney’s trail for a murder he committed there. LaBoeuf is something of a preening dandy, with a lovely moustache and surprisingly clean clothes. He is fond of sitting and smoking his pipe luxuriously, perhaps jangling his spurs while he’s at it. The three don’t get along, but Cogburn knows the country and LaBoeuf knows Chaney, so they form an uneasy alliance and head out into Indian territory with only the vaguest idea of how to find their quarry.
The Coens have always had a terrific knack for language, and I could fill the rest of this review by quoting my favorite lines from their films, but while their great ear for dialogue is still on display here, they largely defer to the odd vernacular and formality of the language in Charles Portis’ novel, with large chunks of the script being taken verbatim from Portis’ text.
One of the main criticisms of the original film version of True Grit was that it didn’t adequately convey Portis’ voice, and the seriocomic tone of the novel, which was told through Mattie’s point of view. The Coens are the ideal filmmakers to translate Portis’ sardonic wit, and they keep the humor present in a story that has more than its share of violence and sadness. The Coens have also decided to tell the story through Mattie’s eyes. She narrates the story, which is seen from her perspective as an adult, and her drive for revenge steers the film the whole way.
Henry Hathaway’s original film, which has plenty of merits, was all about John Wayne, and that isn’t surprising. He was such a big star that any film he was in automatically got caught in his considerable gravitational pull. But here the film is seen through Mattie’s point of view, with Rooster Cogburn merely being one of the three main characters. For Cogburn, being a U.S. Marshal was less of a calling than just one of many possible career paths for a man who is good with a gun. Bridges burrows deep into Rooster, showing us the violence and malice that live within him as well as all the pratfalls and buffoonery you would expect from a habitual drunkard. Rooster Cogburn is going to be a larger-thanlife figure, no matter who’s playing him, but Bridges makes his flaws easily as vivid as his heroism.
Damon also brings considerable skill to a smaller role. LaBoeuf could have easily been only a one-note fool, but Damon brings depth and dignity to the part. Brolin brings a surprising humor and sadness to his few scenes as Chaney, but also shows us the savagery which allowed him to murder Mattie’s father.
Steinfeld, whose previous career highlights include an episode of Sons of Tucson, and was 13 when the movie was shot, is absolutely terrific here. Much like her character, she goes toe to toe with Bridges and Damon and doesn’t back down at all, and almost walks off with the movie.
The Coens have been accused in the past, usually erroneously, of looking down on their characters, who are often extreme and bordering on grotesque. However, True Grit is possibly the warmest thing that they have ever done. The characters here behave heroically, but they do so despite some fairly gigantic character flaws. The movie never really suggests that any of these flaws are going to be “fixed.” Cogburn isn’t going to give up drinking, and LaBoeuf is still going to be vain and vaguely ridiculous, but their heroism eventually shines through. Watching the growing admiration and respect among the three main characters is one of the main joys of the movie.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the characters are softened any. Mattie seems to want revenge more than the justice she says she craves. When LaBoeuf says he wants to take Chaney back to Texas to hang for the man he killed there, she insists that Chaney knows he’s being executed for killing her father, and she’ll kill him herself if given the chance.
Rooster tells Mattie that if you ride at someone hard and fast enough, that they’ll turn tail and run. And that seems to be her conversational style as well. She is hard enough, brandishing her lawyer and monetary figures like weapons, to get her way with most people, but she can mistake bullheadedness for toughness, and when she dresses up in her father’s coat and hat she seems like the child she is. Out on the range, she learns what “true grit” really means.
The Coens like to tweak cinematic genres—with The Big Lebowski being their detective movie, The Hudsucker Proxy their screwball comedy, Miller’s Crossing their gangster film, and so forth—but they make a surprisingly traditional Western here. There are still various pokes and prods of the genre, but they seem born out of love, and the brothers have decided mostly to play it straight and tell a good story.
To that end, the craftsmanship on display is impeccable. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is excellent and evocative, recreating the Old West as a vibrant and earthy place that’s full of life. With their visuals, the Coens remain committed to showing the story from Mattie’s point of view, and there is one sequence near the end of the film that is so obviously seen through Mattie’s eyes that the violence has that much more impact, and it’s almost impressionistic.
Despite the fact that the John Wayne original was hardly a bad film, the remake has surpassed it in pretty much every regard. A terrific story full of layered characters and dialogue that manages to be both wry and labyrinthine, this film is just a great Western, and for future generations, this version will be the definitive True Grit.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com