I shudder to think how many times the John Wayne film True Grit has played on T.V. since its debut in 1969. The movie has been a staple of western marathons over the years and is probably one of the most seen movies by middle aged men over the years. It also probably isn’t worthy of the attention it’s gotten, as it’s probably one of Wayne’s weaker efforts. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but it doesn’t come close to matching some of the classic westerns that Wayne made with directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks and the Oscar he somehow won for the movie was clearly just to honor his career as a whole. That the original film was not all that great is precisely what made it perfect material for remaking, had the film been a genuine classic it wouldn’t need to be made again, but because there’s room for improvement a second version was worth giving a try. Stepping in to do just that are the Coen brothers, who are riding high on a wave of four films that have given them some of their best reviews and highest grosses to date.
Set in Western Arkansas circa 1875, the film largely follows a fourteen year old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) whose father was recently murdered while in a town called Dardanelle. The assailant was a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who subsequently fled with a gang led by a criminal named “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) into the Oklahoma Indian Territories. Local law enforcement is uninterested in chasing Chaney down, but Ross is determined to avenge her father’s death, so she decides to hire a U.S. Marshall to track down and capture or kill Chaney. The man she decides to hire is a drunken old bastard named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who she chooses because of his violent reputation. Ross is determined to accompany him on this excursion in order to see that the job is done, and along the way they run into a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who is also after Chaney because of a separate bounty on his head.
There’s really no doubt that it’s pretty hard to fill John Wayne’s boots, even if it’s in one of his lesser roles. Jeff Bridge takes on the challenge by not even trying. The character of Rooster Cogburn has been pretty heavily altered here and it isn’t really because he’s been re-written so much as the way that Bridges tackles the role. Rooster is a grumpy, drunken, mess of a character but you wouldn’t really know it by looking at Wayne’s performance in the role, he remained so much of an American icon that it was kind of hard to see him as anything less than a strong and articulate figure. That’s not the case here. Cogburn as played by Jeff Bridges is a truly grumpy and seemingly unwashed character who speaks in one of the gruffest voices you’re likely to ever see a major actor starring in a Hollywood movie to dedicate themselves to.
The character of Mattie Ross has also been revised and expanded here. Charles Portis’ original “True Grit” novel was narrated in first-person by Ross, and her character has been restored to her central role here. The character is fourteen years old, but was played by a twenty two year old Kim Darby in the original film. Here she’s played by an unknown but age-appropriate actress who’s clearly a great discovery. The character is made to be a character that in spite of her age is greatly driven by a sense of honor and an uncompromising belief that she can get everything that’s owed to her. Early on we see her negotiating with much older people and fighting for what she needs as strongly as an adult gunfighter would. This litigious nature is extremely important as it drives her motivations throughout this adventure and if the kid they found to play her were any less talented it would have come off as ridiculous preciousness and it doesn’t.
There’s really a lot of good acting to go around in the movie, and I’m not necessarily talking about Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, or Barry Pepper, although they all do fine work themselves. What I’m really talking about are the bit players, the small parts that have been filled perfectly by a fine assortment of character actors. I don’t know how they do it, but the Coen brothers seem uniquely able to find interesting faces to populate their movies with and this is no exception. In fact, there are a lot of great Coenisms throughout the movie, their style is hardly invisible and it adds a lot of flavor to the proceedings. This is not, however, an insular and polarizing Coen brothers exercise like last year’s A Serious Man. This is an example of the Coens using their style to make a very accessible movie that is classic Hollywood entertainment in the best sense of the term. The Coens are, first and foremost, trying to tell a good story and their style improves the film rather than defining it.
This is also probably the closest that the Coens have come to making a straight-up action movie. That’s not to say that this is an action movie in the same way that something like Die Hard is an action movie, but there are some really well done western shootouts here, especially their rendition of the horseback shootout in the valley from the original. This is a fairly violent film, it should be noted. Not as violent as No Country for Old Men or Fargo, but it’s definitely got some of that Coen brothers bloodletting and I’m not sure how it managed to get a PG-13 rating given some of the bloodier scenes, the Coens definitely didn’t hold back. They also didn’t hold back on the production values, as they’ve gotten their full team of craftsmen back into action including cinematographer Roger Deakins and an excellent score by Carter Burwell.
What True Grit isn’t, is a wildly deep or sophisticated movie and it doesn’t have a particularly obvious message at its heart. It does explore the issues of revenge and it does offer a pretty good if unconventional coming of age story for the Mattie Ross character, but this is mostly in the background. At its heart this is an adventure story and a traditional western and that is not a complaint. Not every great movie needs to be a post-modern statement about our times and not every movie needs some kind of underlying political message, at least not when they’re this well made. John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Budd Boetticher were also able to make great escapism, but escapism that had legitimate storytelling meat on its bones. This is the kind of real populist filmmaking that has been long absent from studio funded cinema for far too long.
**** out of Four