A film review by Craig J. Koban December 30, 2010

Rank: #14


2010, PG-13, 110 mins.


Rooster Cogburn: Jeff Bridges / LaBoeuf: Matt Damon / Tom Chaney: Josh Brolin / Lucky Ned: Barry Pepper / Mattie Ross: Hailee Steinfeld

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen / Based on the novel by Charles Portis.

What an audaciously original move it was for the Coen Brothers to re-work a classic western that many old-school fans of the genre hold dear to their hearts.  One thing needs to mentioned, though, right from the onset if my review for this film: TRUE GRIT is not in any way shape or form a slavish or wasteful remake of the cherished 1969 John Wayne western of the same name that finally netted The Duke a late career Oscar.  I would more aptly describe this Coen iteration as an adaptation of the original source material, Charles Portis' 1968 novel.  True to their claims, the brothers have gone out of their way to state that their TRUE GRIT has been ostensibly designed to be a worthy and loyal companion piece to its literary antecedent. 

Yet…who am I kidding…almost no lay filmgoer is going to approach this film without seeing it as a remake or drawing some comparisons to Wayne’s version.  How could they not?  The iconic visage of The Duke carved out one of his most memorable screen creations in playing the one-eyed, frequently inebriated, and morally questionable U.S. Marshall Rueben J “Rooster” Cogburn, so the loving collective memories of Wayne aficionados will certainly go into the Coens’ TRUE GRIT with an awful lot of hasty suspicion.  Even though I am by no means a staunch fan of the original, even I went into this TRUE GRIT-redux with some reservations: After all, why would filmmakers of the high and esteemed pedigree of the Coens that have made some of the seminal films of the last 30 years want to regress into making a genre effort that would draw so many comparisons to the previous filmed version of the material? 

The simple answer, I guess, is that…because they can.  On one token, their TRUE GRIT is arguably the first straightforward and no-nonsense attempt on their part to make a clear-cut genre film.  Yet, for as undemanding as the film superficially comes across, the esoteric DNA of the Coens breathes through every pore of this film: TRUE GRIT is just as cheekily macabre and subversive as anything else they have made.  Furthermore, the pair shows their own grit and fortitude for doing something that the original sort of failed to do, which is being smart and true to Portis’ book.  The Coens intuitively understand here that the real emotional epicenter of seeing the novel through to the big screen was to not focus on the Cogburn persona, but rather on the voice and presence of its young adolescent female character. 

Aside from the character focus and an ending that approaches melancholic beauty and sadness, the Coen Brothers version still has many overall similarities to the ’69 original in terms of its basic plot.  Both films are essentially tales of retribution and revenge:  It is near the end of the 19th Century in Oklahoma and 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, the acting find of the year; more on her later) is dealing with the murder of her father.  The perpetrator is a wily ol’ drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, slowly becoming a confident and reliable Coen regular) that has fled into the infamously dangerous “Indian Territory” where he hooks up with a gang of grizzled and gnarly misfits led by Lucky Ned Pepper (played well by the borderline unrecognizable Barry Pepper).  Mattie wants one thing: to see Chaney pay and pay dearly. 

The local authorities don’t seem to take Mattie or her concerns seriously, despite the fact that see has the resources and a headstrong maturity and feistiness that’s hard to refute.  One local catches her attention in particular, the eye-patched, grubby, semi-portly, and frequently drunk Marshall Rooster Cogburn (played with a tough as nails presence that even The Duke would like by Jeff Bridges) and Mattie takes it upon herself to make several attempts at hiring him as a bounty hunter to entrap Chaney.  Although Cogburn seems too disinterested and busy to oblige in Mattie’s offer, he begrudgingly does so when offered a hard-to-ignore fee.  They have some company, though, in the form of a do-gooder and prideful Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) that wants Chaney for the murder of a Texas Senator.  Mattie wants to see Chaney burn in her own state for her father’s murder, which places her and Cogburn’s mission in direct opposition to the ranger’s. 

Two areas in particular make this Coen Brothers appropriation of TRUE GRIT triumphantly rise far above both expectations of the genre and the overall quality of the ’69 incarnation: Firstly, this new TRUE GRIT is to be savored for the its eccentric and oddball characters and the sort of turn of the century vernacular they so fluently speak in, which gives the film a sense of texture and nuance.  The richness, color, and buoyancy of the dialogue exchanges in the film approach reach a level of lyrical comic poetry at times.  Some of the film’s greatest scenes display this richness and attention to the language of the period, like one bravura exchange – handled with a sly and observantly acerbic edge by the Coens – where Mattie bargains with a horse trader early in the story, during which the young girl uses a remarkable grasp of logical reason to outfox the veteran businessman in ways that he never thought possible.  How utterly wonderful is it to bare witness to a western where the words are as patiently and lovingly rendered as its visuals? 

However, this brings me to the second area where the Coens show their gamesmanship for the film: This TRUE GRIT is a sparse and economical technical masterpiece for the duo for how they effortlessly and evocatively recreate the west.  We’ve all seen countless obligatory wild west towns in the movies, but the Coens envision their version of this iconography by substantially opening things up by making Fort Smith, Arkansas breathe like a tangible and sprawling town that never once feels like a backlot bit of production fakery.  Helping them immeasurably, as always, is the presence of Roger Deakins as cinematographer – a frequent Coen Brothers co-conspirator – that paints the screen with simple, but beguiling images of the frontier.  His painterly eye for the panorama vistas of the harsh and jagged landscapes the characters populate induce a sense of awe and grandeur, even during the most plainly rendered of compositions (see the film’s last few shots).  And just look how much atmosphere and texture he gives even rudimentary moments like an early courtroom scene, where he bathes the room with a layer of sun drenched haze.   

Sure, Jeff Bridges is occupying the mightily gargantuan and mythic shoes of The Duke by playing Cogburn, but Bridges too has made a career of being an intense screen presence.  His performance of Cogburn is not about mimicking Wayne (although the obvious quirks and wardrobe choices are similar), but Bridges achieves the thankless and impossible task of making his Cogburn all his own: with a raspy and gravely intonation that feels like the product of about a dozen hangovers, Bridges is an unmitigated hoot as the rugged and tough Marshall.  Even though he is a man of many, shall we say, guilty pleasures and vices, there remains a redeeming level of chivalry and nobility to the man.  That, and when Bridges spits out teeth-clenched tough guy classic lines during a shootout like, “Fill yer hands, you sons of bitches,” it’s really hard not be taken in for the ride.  There are very few actors that can play unattractive slobs and infuse a sense of cool and hip swagger into them like Bridges can here. 

Matt Daman – who has emerged as of late as one of the more dignified and reliable character actors working today – is a scream playing his totally-by-the-book and honor bound Texas Ranger.  Josh Brolin steps into the shoes of his immoral and despicable rogue with ease and poise and, compellingly enough, even manages to show a sprinkle of humanity in a few subtle moments.  TRUE GRIT, however, is a tour de force showpiece for the 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose IMBD page mostly lists her past work with some bit parts on TV, but she gives on the year’s most assured and confident performances as the young wiper-snapper that serves as the film’s focal point of interest.  Rarely have I seen such a young and inexperienced film actress rise to the occasion by being so poised, so rock steady, and so convincing in a role.  To witness Steinfeld’s flawless and fluent handling of her character’s saucy, razor sharp, and smart period dialect and hold her own with of the likes of Damon, Brolin, and Bridges reveals her to be a major star in the making.  There is not one moment in TRUE GRIT where the audience is not fixated on this limitless talented and affable screen presence. 

Again, people that go in expecting this film to be like the cherished TRUE GRIT of old will be disappointed.  Yet, for the rest of us more discerning filmgoers, the Coens have really outdone themselves and defied expectations by making their TRUE GRIT stand proudly and successfully on its own two feet as a fitting homage to Portis’ novel.  As consummate film craftsmen, the Coens are more than equal to the task of making an opulent western that is a rich and splendid tableau of its period, but where they really succeed is in how meticulously they absorb in the finer and more intriguing details of the novel that inspired them.  In all, the Coens score a real artistic coup here for how resoundingly they separate their effort from the very famous previous one, which is no easy task, indeed.  Very few remakes (if I have to dignify it with that inaccurate moniker) far exceed the original, but this 21st Century GRIT certainly does…and then some.

  H O M E