The recent “remake” of True Grit from Ethan and Joel Coen is about everything you would expect it to be. Of course this is only true if you expected it to be amazing. The dialog is vintage Coen brothers, the performances are inspired and the cinematography and tone are all top notch, remaining unique from their other films yet still maintaining their trademark style and wit.
Now, you may have noticed that the word “remake” was in quotes. While just about everyone familiar with westerns is aware of the 1969 film starring John “The Duke” Wayne, what many might not be aware of is that it was, as so many movies are, originally a novel. The Coen brothers version can really be considered more of a different take on the book than a remake of the John Wayne movie.The word going around is that the new version is more true to the Charles Portis novel than the Marguerite Roberts screenplay back in ’69. As for which one is better. The new one. Easily. And not because it’s new. It’s better written and better acted (no Kim Darby or Glen Campbell is a plus for many).
The story revolves around a precocious young girl named Mattie Ross (played by big screen newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) who sets out to avenge her father’s murder. Mature for her age though she may be, she is but 14 and needs help to either put a bullet in a man or at least see him put at the end of a rope. Mattie enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges at the top of his game), who happens to be the meanest, nastiest most brutal of the U.S. Marshals in that particular territory. He has an eye patch, a scruffy beard, a drinking problem and a set of morals that is…flexible. An uneasy alliance is formed with a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) and the trio rides off towards their common goal of killing or capturing Josh Brolin. Even if none of them can really stand each other.
Jeff Bridges is just simply amazing. I’ve always liked Bridges and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. And I know I risk crucifixion when I say Jeff Bridges blows John Wayne out of the water as Rooster Cogburn. John Wayne did not play Rooster Cogburn. John Wayne played John Wayne, who whether a cowboy or a Green Barret is still just John Wayne. Bridges, on the other hand, becomes a drunk, cynical, gunslinger so completely you’re left to wonder whether the character is even fictional.
Then there’s Hailee Steinfeld as little Mattie Ross, the 14 year old girl with more maturity and intelligence than most people achieve at all. “Who the heck is Hailee Steinfeld?” you ask? Well, that’s a very good question. Answer is…she’s new. Outside of some short films and a couple guest spots on TV Shows she is new to the scene. True Grit is her big screen debut. She was picked from a nationwide search of young actresses, according to the films official website, and it is immediately apparent why. She brings the the role all of the sophistication of someone twice her age. In fact, one of the best scenes in the film is her negotiating with a shop owner in a sequence requiring the dead-on delivery and timing that makes Coen brothers scripts work. She nails it. Seriously, keep your eye on this kid. She’s going places.
Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, though big names, don’t have as much screen time as you might think they would. But both do fine jobs as both a talented actors. Brolin, who plays the man our heroes are looking for, only shows up near the climax for obvious reasons.
Like most Coen brothers’ films there’s a fair amount of grittiness and violence and a tone of humor so subtle that sometimes only folk on an obscure frequency will find it. Though there are moments that are just straight funny no matter who you are. And as always they defy your expectations. Even when you think you’ve got them figured out. Sometimes their endings are abrupt and ambiguous. Sometimes you get a full resolution. And which ever you think you’re going to get, you’ll get the opposite. Which one is this? I’m not saying. But I will say my guess was wrong.