Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper ~ Writers/Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen ~ Rating: 15 ~ Year: 2010
The Lowdown: The Western rides again thanks to the Coen Brothers, who’ve taken a novel originally filmed in 1969 with John Wayne and turned it into a powerful and moody portrait of the Old West, backed up by fantastic performances from Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.
What’s it About?: 14-year old farm girl Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) has only one thing she wants – to see runaway criminal Tom Chaney (Brolin) hang for the murder of her father. However, Chaney has vanished deep inside the Indian Nations, and the only person she can find to help her is US Marshall Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Bridges), a one-eyed shambling disaster of a man who seems more interested in whiskey than justice…
The Story: The rule is simple – never remake a classic. There’s so many elements that can go wrong second time around, so it’s often much easier to take on a film that isn’t quite so revered, as in the case of True Grit. Filmed in 1969, the John Wayne-starring version is actually a fairly good example of a mainstream Hollywood Western in the late Sixties, but it’s really best remembered for Wayne’s showboating performance, playing off his iconic status as the cantankerous, whiskey-soaked Cogburn (and netting him his only Oscar), and doesn’t always do justice to Charles Portis’s original novel. As a result, there weren’t any cries of horror when the Coen Brothers announced their intention to do a new interpretation of True Grit, and what we’ve ended up with is a very different version of the same story, taking the original novel and creating something much darker, more ruminative and violent.
Because make no mistake – while there’s plenty of humour on display here, this is a story of justice, and the kind of price you pay for both seeking and defying it. Mattie Ross’ determined quest to avenge her father is brave and compelling, but it’s never framed as anything other than an extremely dangerous journey into dark territory that’s populated by dangerous men. There’s very little escapism or romance in the Coen’s portrait of the West – Mattie spends the film surrounded by death (even having to sleep at an undertakers in an early scene), and her quest eventually results in a serious price to pay, while the West itself is a spectacular but frightening place, a bleak and barren country where there’s little comfort (but plenty of room for occasional bursts of very Coen-Brother weirdness, like the bizarre encounter with a roaming wilderness Dentist).
When the action comes, it’s brilliantly handled and sometimes shocking, but the Coens mainly keep the pace gentle, focussing on the characters and showcasing their usual talent at bringing out strong performances. It’s no surprise that Bridges is excellent – he’s one of the most reliable character actors in Hollywood – but he does an amazing job as Cogburn, buried behind an eyepatch and a sometimes-incomprehensible accent, creating a character who’s both entertaining and dangerous, riding a risky moral line and being admirable without ever seeming entirely reliable or trustworthy.
There’s also excellent work from Matt Damon, giving Texas Ranger LaBoeuf plenty of depth and pomposity, while Josh Brolin does plenty with only a handful of scenes as Cheney, but the whole film is stolen wholesale by Hailee Steinfeld who’s simply incredible as Mattie Ross, appearing in almost every scene and matching her co-stars line for line. The early sequence where she manages to talk around a tradesman who’s unwilling to buy back a number of horses is worth the price of admission alone, and Steinfeld holds the whole film together with a realism and charisma that you don’t often see in teen actresses.
True Grit sits at the more commercial end of the Coen Brothers’ work, although it’s definitely a successful fusion of art and commerce (especially now that it’s made over $100 million in the States). While it isn’t quite as distinctive or peculiarly moving as the fantastically quirky A Serious Man, or as gut-punchingly powerful as No Country for Old Men, it’s still a fascinating and rewarding piece of cinema, backed up with a typically excellent and moving score from Carter Burwell. In a way, it also makes a kind of odd double-bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven – and while it isn’t quite as determined to demythologise the West, it certainly takes the shine off the legend, showing it as a pretty merciless place that only cantankerous, morally dubious men like Bridges’ Cogburn are truly built to survive.
The Verdict: Darker and more melancholic than you might expect, True Grit contains plenty of the classic hallmarks of the Western, but it’s most memorable for the Coen Brothers’ more characterful touches, and the fantastic performances of both Bridges and Steinfeld.