Written for the Screen and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Chances are, if you're watching a John Wayne film, you're watching a western of the highest quality. Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are all amongst the best of the most American genre. But if you've seen 1969's True Grit (for which Wayne the Oscar for Best Actor), you've seen one of the worst of the genre. So, when I heard that the Coen Brothers' newest film was a remake of one of my least favorite films, I felt a bit dismayed. The 1969 True Grit was campy and sentimental, which seemed like everything that Coens had well avoided throughout their careers. But their reinvention of this classic revenge story has some freshness to it, and is made with such delicate care and grace that it almost allows me to forget what an unpleasant experience watching the original was. Almost.
Based on the all-time classic novel by Charles Portis, True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross (played here by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), who seeks to find the man who cowardly killed her father. That murderous man is Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She's a very capable young girl. She's able to hassle an old horse trader into paying $120 more than he wants on a pair of ponies. So, when she is told by the town's deputy sheriff that Tom Cheney is near the end of a long laundry list of accused being searched for at the moment, she decides to go out on her own and hire someone whose sole purpose will be to find Cheney. She asks who is the best US Marshall for the job. There are many good trackers who could get the job done, sure, but the meanest is Rooster Cogburn (the John Wayne role, played here by the one and only Jeff Bridges). He's a man with "true grit", as they say. It's fitting that when Mattie first sees him, he's sitting in a courtroom recounting how many men he's killed - it's 23.
Bridges' Cogburn is the key to what makes this film flourish where the original floundered. Jeff Bridges is playing the role of Rooster Cogburn, where John Wayne was playing (no real surprise here) John Wayne. The Cogburn of 2010 is much more grizzled - much more gritty, if you'll excuse the obvious adjective. He's more cold and calculating, yet a little more open. He allows us to get inside. It's odd that a man who seems more cut off can also seem more approachable, but that is the wonder of Bridges. The Cogburn of 1969 was brash and unafraid, but was also whimsical, bordering on campy. I wondered why he was tagging along with Mattie, and vice versa. I did not have that problem in 2010. Bridges delivers the comic lines with so much of a dry sensibility, yet they're so much funnier. The Coen Brothers did a great job of stripping the character down to its bare essentials, and let Bridges embody it fully.
Rooster and Mattie are joined by LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas ranger who has also been searching for Tom Cheney, but for murders he committed in the state of Texas. He tells them that his expertise on Cheney - he's been searching for him for months - will help Cogburn's expert tracking. But Leoeuf wants Cheney taken back to Texas and tried for his crimes, while Mattie specifically wants him taken to Arkansas to be hung specifically for the crime of murdering her father. Cogburn is only concerned about getting paid, so to hear Mattie and LeBoeuf bickering is not an ideal start to their trek. Finally, they come to a mutual agreement and head out toward Cheney who is likely to be hiding out in Indian Territory as a member of the gang led by Lucky Ned Pepper (played by the aptly cast Barry Pepper).
The Coen Brothers have often dabbled in classic film genres, usually making allusions to 1940's Film Noir (Miller's Crossing and The Man Who Wasn't There) and 1930's Screwball Comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty). They've never made an all-out Western, though No Country For Old Men had some of the characteristics. As usual, they attack the genre in a way that's loyal to its sensibilities, while still holding onto their own unique style and voice. Like most Westerns, it relishes in its scenery. Here, it's the wooded terrain of Texas. Along with their usual cinematographer Roger Deakins, they photograph the surroundings with gorgeous, yet dry, brittle colors. It's probably an academic thing to say that a Coen Brothers film "looks good", but True Grit is really a wonder to watch, capturing a way that is harsh, authentic, but still aesthetically beautiful.
One of my main objections of the 1969 film was its uneven screenplay, which was so heavily slanted toward its bloated first act that it felt terribly slow. The Coens chop it down, though, and tighten its entire plot to make it move smoother. There are times when the plot moves a little too smooth (there's very little in the way of suspense here), but once we get to the end, we feel like we've seen everything we needed and are comfortable with everything we've watched. This is the fourth film by the Coens in the last four years, but the previous three were all brilliant dissections of the darkness and absurdity within American culture (No Country, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man). This is a bit of a vacation from that: a straight genre piece that's impeccably made and capably acted. It's the lesser of the four films - definitely the least ambitious. But it's still a very engaging as an action film, and very captivating as a drama with characters that draw you in.
A lot of Oscar noise has been made about Bridges and Steinfeld getting Oscar nominations for their performances (though Steinfeld is running a 'Supporting Actress' campaign, which makes no sense, since she's the film's main protagonist). I wouldn't object to either of them getting nominated, since both performances are slick, well-written, and mannered without seeming histrionic or melodramatic. Steinfeld, in particular, is incredibly capable as the strong minded young woman with revenge on her mind. When she has her big showdown at the end with Cheney, none of her actions surprise us, and she's able to hold her own amongst such brilliant performers as Bridges and Damon. True Grit is not amongst the greatest within the Coens' resume, but that's not exactly saying anything bad. It is a lot like the Coen Brothers to think that they could make a successful film in a genre that hasn't succeeded in decades. I guess they have true grit.