The Coen Brothers rarely disappoint. They have brought us movies both quirky and memorable, including the hilarious Raising Arizona (1987) and the weird and grisly Fargo (1996). They even won the biggest prize of all: Best Picture for their 2007 movie No Country for Old Men. The remake of True Grit shares much in common with their other movies, but in some ways it feels more conventional. It takes place largely in Arkansas in its frontier days, so it works as a western although you won’t see any cacti. It has good guys, bad guys, guys in between and, most notably it’s got Hailee Steinfeld as fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross.
True Grit is Steinfeld’s first real movie and boy is she terrific. The Coen Brothers have many great strengths, and among them is an eye for casting just the right person. Steinfeld is a perfect casting as are arguably all the actors in this movie. In a movie full of superstars like Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as Marshal LaBoeuf and Josh Brolin as the outlaw Tom Chaney, it is newcomer Steinfeld who amazingly steals the show. It doesn’t hurt though for this relatively young newcomer to be surrounded by terrific talent. The result is a movie that runneths over with fine and memorable acting.
You might not recognize Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf as he has been rendered so ordinary looking. Jeff Bridges must have had some trepidation filling the role of Rooster Cogburn. After all, in 1970 John Wayne took home a Best Actor award for his role as Rooster Cogburn. Bridges is as memorable as Wayne, if not more so, in this version. However, I doubt he is eligible for best actor simply because in this version he is a supporting actor. This is not a movie not with Rooster Cogburn at its heart, but Mattie Ross.
Steinfeld renders a fascinating Mattie Ross who prefers to mind her own business, but is forced by circumstance to be assertive. She may be a relative pipsqueak but she has a tongue and a manner that can intimidate men three times her size. With her father murdered by their ranch hand Tom Chaney, the law in no hurry to bring him to justice, and her mother with a ranch to take care of, Mattie decides she is the one who must bring Chaney to justice, so she heads into town with the intent of hiring someone who will do the job. It’s not a task she wants to wholly delegate. She has to come along, to make sure her investment is doing his job, and if necessary to kill Cheney personally. Once focused on her unpleasant task, she resembles a pit bull with its eye on a juicy steak. She seeks out Rooster Cogburn to help find Cheney in the vast Arkansas Indian Territory where he is hiding because she has heard that he has “true grit”. Both he and ranger LaBoeuf are not intimidated by Indian territory, chasing dangerous lawbreakers, gunfights or nights alone in the wilderness. It turns out that Mattie has more true grit than both of them; she just lacks their practical experience, age and larger body mass.
The Old West was rife with ruffians, but this Old West gets particularly dangerous when Rooster Cogburn is around. He may be a U.S. marshal, but it’s clear how he has survived so long: by shooting first and asking questions later. He and Mattie are not on the trail long before their body count skyrockets. There is plenty of true grit, both from the pursued and the pursuers as they search for Chaney in Arkansas Indian Territory. It’s primitive territory where you can find dead people hanging from trees in the middle of nowhere and where carcasses have salvage value. The old West has rarely been rendered in such an austere fashion, which is neat because it makes the movie feel entirely authentic. Many westerns are rendered on Hollywood back lots. This version feels eerily accurate although the Ozark Mountains look awfully tall. My guess is that it was filmed in someplace like British Columbia. The Coen Brothers render what the Old West probably really was: largely lawless, impoverished, primitive, harsh and unforgiving. A gun was not just a good idea; it was an absolute necessity and it was used regularly.
What we get is one of the Coen Brothers best films, better, I think than the over-touted No Country for Old Men. In this movie all the elements of acting, story, staging, directing and producing beautifully come together. We get a reimagined and compelling story delivered in a way that feels far grittier than the 1969 film. It’s not often that a remake of a movie exceeds the original. I think we can safely say the Coen Brothers succeeded, in part because they rendered a story closer to the book. If I had a gun I would shoot it in the air in celebration for such a well-done production.
3.4 on my four-point scale.