Film review: True Grit
The original netted John Wayne his only Oscar as Rooster Cogburn yet the Coen Brothers' remake betters that film in every way by feeling both modern and timeless
• Jeff Bridges, above, shines in the Coen Brother's remake of the John Wayne classic
True Grit (15) *****
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin
AFTER the insular, self-indulgent void that was A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen deliver a film with actual heart - one fuelled by retribution, bloodshed and black humour, but one with heart nonetheless. Sort of a flipside to their evil-triumphing neo-Western No Country For Old Men, True Grit is an old-school Western set in a world plagued by a similar sense of lawlessness, but countered this time by a trio of ruthless justice seekers who'll stop at nothing to track down a murderer called Chaney (Josh Brolin) whose only real skill is his ability to exploit public apathy.
Chaney is not a menacing Anton Chigurh-esque psycho; he's a killer by default, a coward just fixing to stay out of the hands of the law. "The wicked flee when none pursueth," states the film's opening proverb. Trouble is, Chaney hasn't banked on his victim's daughter being a 14-year-old avenging angel. This is Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a tough, no- nonsense girl so determined to have a day of reckoning with her father's killer that when she's offered a choice between the best (and fairest) bounty hunter in the county or the most ruthless, she picks the latter.
This, it turns out, is Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a garrulous, overweight US Marshal with one good eye, a bellyful of booze and multiple unnecessary kills under his belt. Striking a straightforward business deal after settling her father's affairs (in an amusing display of precociousness), she forces Rooster to take her along, much to the chagrin of Texas Ranger Le Boeuf (Matt Damon), who has been on Chaney's trail for months and doesn't take kindly to an interloper like Mattie, much less her pitiless mockery of his smarts and sartorial choices.
Much of the pleasure of True Grit comes from observing the way these relationships play out. Cogburn's a windbag, a guy who has not only driven away everyone who ever loved him, but who won't shut up about it. The vocal inflections Bridges adopts, a kind of squawking throatiness - make him one of the more distinctive characters in the Coen's oevre (he's a man you hear before you see) but he's also fairly distinct from the traditional Western hero.
There's no steely-eyed Man With No Name reserve, but he can brutal when he needs to be. Mattie is also something of a captive audience, which endears her to him relatively quickly, though it's an odd sort of father-daughter bond that develops between them; her focus and maturity means and their roles are frequently inverted.
Here, Steinfeld is fearsome. Just 13 during filming, she has that rare gift of being able to project wise-beyond-her-years confidence while retaining her adolescent vulnerability. The latter comes out in lovely scene with Damon when Mattie realises that there's a good man beneath Le Boeuf's ridiculous moustache and all his braggadocio.
Damon, too, is on fine form, skilfully negotiating a tricky character arc in a way that prevents LeBeouf slipping from a figure of fun to comic relief. Indeed, all three make their characters their own, which is important given the story's previous incarnation as one of John Wayne's most famous films.
Whether you view True Grit as a remake of that 1969 effort or a new adaptation of the Charles Pontis source novel hardly matters. It's a superior film in every way to Henry Hathaway's original, though that film shouldn't be discounted. Released in the final weeks of the 1960s, it marked the last stand of Old Hollywood, winning John Wayne his first and only Oscar before the studio system collapsed and the movie brats took over.
Though it had the foresight to cast the likes of Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall in small roles, it was a film that clung too rigidly to the old way of doing things, and I suspect looked dated even then when compared to the blood-spurting mayhem of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, released a few months earlier.
What's great about the Coen brothers' version, though, is that it feels both modern and timeless. It's a film made with great craft and genuine respect for the things people associate with classic filmmaking, but it also illustrates the Coens' abilities to push the envelope a little more each time, weaving their own visual quirks, their coal-black humour, and their love of precise language into mainstream films that neither look nor sound like anything else.
And best of all, they strip the story free of the sentimental traps into which it could have fallen, yet deliver something more moving than expected courtesy of an elegiac coda that acknowledges the passing of an era, if not the violent impulses that defined it, while also reminding us that the good guys sometimes win, if only for a brief moment.
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