Movies have gotten considerably leaner in the past 40 years. Filmmakers seem fixed on the notion that audiences need only see what is essential to the story - nothing more, nothing less. This is a good thing, and the Coen brothers may know this better than anybody. Their films tend to have a near-perfect balance of showing, telling and often puzzling ambiguity that makes it fun to talk and think about them long after you leave the theater.
Movie Review: True Grit
By Matthew Huntley
January 4, 2010
Their latest, True Grit, is the brothers’ second remake, and although many consider the original John Wayne version a classic (it won Wayne his only Oscar), it wasn’t perfect. I recently watched that 1969 Henry Hathaway film and after seeing the Coen brothers’ interpretation, it’s easy to where some of the original’s fat could have been trimmed. I realize the 1960s were a different time cinematically and studios and audiences had more patience for stories that took longer to develop. But there is a difference between taking time to develop a story and showing what’s necessary. If the Coen brothers made their version in 1969, it would be interesting to see how similar or different it would be compared to the 2010 rendition. Because they have such an inherent gift for storytelling, one that seems irrespective of time, I’m willing to bet they’d mostly be the same.
Instead of having an extended prologue like the original, the new True Grit starts off with just a voiceover. We listen as 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) tells us her father was killed by his farmhand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), after a drunken card game turned violent. Now she’s seeking a U.S. marshal to hunt him down. Strong-willed and self-reliant, Mattie arrives by train to Fort Smith to identify her father’s body before asking the locals who their best lawman is, preferably the one with the most grit. That would be Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a gruff, one-eyed drunkard with a reputation for being trigger-happy, although he never misses a shot when it counts.
After bargaining with a local merchant to buy back her father’s horses (and even buy one back at a cheaper price), Mattie hires Cogburn for $50 to take her into Indian Territory, find Chaney and avenge her father’s death. Chaney has joined up with “Lucky” Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang, which would be dangerous and scary to most 14-year-olds, but Mattie doesn’t show fear and never walks away without putting up a fight. She’s the kind of stubborn girl you love to hate but also admire for her tenacity. When a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) learns of her mission, he asks to join her party since Chaney is also wanted in Texas for murdering a senator and his dog. Initially, Cogburn and La Boeuf don’t get along, but they join forces since there’s reward money at stake. They want to leave Mattie behind, but they find she’s not so easy to lose.
True Grit is really about two things. It’s about the plot, which is engaging in its own right; and it’s about the relationships that develop between the three main characters. Unspoken bonds form between Rooster, La Boeuf and Mattie, but none are overly suggested. Instead of writing the film with forced sentimentality where the characters confess their liking and appreciation for one other, we see it in their behavior, which makes it more credible.
The performances are also convincing, perhaps more than in the original. As grand of a presence as John Wayne had, his take on Rooster Cogburn seemed more broad than strong. It always felt like Wayne the persona was talking instead of Cogburn the character. Bridges gives him more of a personality and better disappears into the role. Watching him, it was hard to believe Bridges’ last performance with the Coen brothers was as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Obviously, the man has range and each of his performances leaves no traces of others. Damon is strong, too, playing a conservative, idealistic man who inevitably looks weaker next to the overpowering marshal, which isn’t to say he doesn’t hold his own.
However, as in the original, the real standout is the Mattie Ross character, who was first played by the indelible Kim Darby. To her credit, Darby was better than anybody at getting under your skin. Steinfeld faithfully matches her cultured dialogue and persistence, but she also brings a fresh perspective because the character is written younger this time. Steinfeld is wholly believable and able to match wills with her male cast, which is no easy task when those males are Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.
I wouldn’t label any version of True Grit a masterpiece, but I will say the remake is better than the original. The Coens give it a greater sense of excitement and urgency and they amp up the action and violence effectively. But the underlying story, from the novel by Charles Portis, is basically linear and not full of too many surprises. As such, it doesn’t have the ambiguity or deep emotional resonance of the Coens’ Fargo or A Serious Man, but it is lean, serious and finely performed.