In an era of film that has been dominated by money grabbing sequels and unnecessary remakes, history teaches us that it’s tough to competently put together a new take on a story that’s been told previously. More often than not, the remake is of a lower quality than the original and comes across as pointless. Even when these are good films, fans of the first take tend to get Good Old Days Syndrome and refuse to acknowledge the merits of the new film. Every once in a while you strike gold (see: “Ocean’s Eleven”) but more often than not, the result is received well by neither critics nor audiences (“The Day the Earth Stood Still” comes to mind for the first time ever). “True Grit” is a particularly tough film to rethink because A.) It is considered a classic, having brought John Wayne his only Oscar; B.) The Western is a dying/dead genre of film that generally has a tough time finding an audience; and C.) Western fans display perhaps the highest form of Good Old Days Syndrome of any genre and rigidly deny the quality of most Westerns made post-1980. That makes for a challenge that only an INCREDIBLE group of filmmakers could measure up to. Enter the Coens.
“True Grit” opens on 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a firecracker of a girl with a sharp tongue and a quick wit, who comes to Fort Smith, Arkansas to take possession of the body of her father who was killed by hired-hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). With her mind set on vengeance, Mattie hires US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Chaney and bring him to justice. Cogburn is an unsophisticated drunk with a reputation for killing his targets over arresting them. Mattie insists on tagging along in the manhunt and soon finds herself riding through the Arkansas/Oklahoma wilderness with Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has tracked Chaney from the Lone Star State and aims to bring him back there to hang for murdering a politician. Their situation quickly escalates when the trio becomes entangled with a group of outlaws who Chaney has joined, leading to a dramatic final showdown that any fan of the Old West would be proud of.
Very few names in film inspire confidence for me like Joel and Ethan Coen do. The writer/director team has proven themselves time and time again to be thoroughly trustworthy and dependable. They simply do not take any aspect of the filmmaking process for granted; from writing to casting, location to costume, every single detail is meticulously thought out and crafted. It’s not to say that every one of their films is perfect (“Ladykillers” anyone?), it’s that each one comes together seamlessly and hits a unified tone from beginning to end. And then there’s the signature, beautifully poetic dialogue that runs rampant through all Coen movies. It is, quite simply, sublime. “True Grit” is no exception in which every piece of the film hits the proper note. As always with the Coens, though, the real proof is in the characters.
Each of our heroes is magnificently crafted. LaBoeuf is cocky and overly proud of his position but like all good Texans (myself included) he doesn’t think he’s cocky. If this were a traditional comedy, LaBoeuf would be a perfect straight man to Cogburn’s jester. Cogburn on the other hand is pragmatic and up-front about his flaws. He makes no bones about his love for the drink or his penchant for firing upon his fugitives. At the same time, he genuinely cares about justice, he’s just not as self-righteous about it as LaBoeuf. The sarcastic and world-worn Cogburn and the high-minded LaBoeuf don’t exactly mesh and so more often than not it is left to the would-be-annoying-if-she-wasn’t-so-dang-entertaining Mattie Ross to be the voice of reason. By design, Ross is the driving force behind “True Grit” and it shows in the way she pushes her comrades. What makes her such a compelling heroine is that she is determined to track down her father’s killer, not desperate. In this setting, desperation would have made her a sympathetic figure but not an inspiring one. As it is, she strikes the perfect balance of vulnerability and (for lack of a better term) grit with just an ounce of naivety that makes her so likeable and accessible. Bridges, Damon, and newcomer Steinfeld are each brilliant in their roles. Like he always does, Damon fully embraces the psychology and the spirit of LaBoeuf. Steinfeld is an absolute natural who looks to have an extremely bright future. And Bridges continues his hot streak, giving a wily, witty edge to Cogburn that is utterly delightful. The differences between his take on Cogburn and Bad Blake from “Crazy Heart” (for which he won a Best Actor Academy Award) are astounding. Since both characters are essentially grizzled old country boys, it would have been so easy to play Cogburn and Blake the same and instead Bridges turns in dramatically different portrayals that could very easily bring him back-to-back Oscars.
Pulled together by fitting cinematography, strong supporting characters (including an appearance by Barry Pepper, a personal favorite), and a wicked sense of humor, “True Grit” provides an awesome film-going experience. Three years ago I called “No Country for Old Men” the Coen’s masterpiece and while I stand by that description, “True Grit” gives me hope that one day I’ll have to eat my words and pin that title on another film.
We need more westerns these days,