Written by Nick Descalzi
True Grit: Rated PG
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld.
With True Grit, the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) have achieved three things: reminded us of why remakes are not always such a bad thing, given new life to what many film experts have described as a dying genre (The Western), and ultimately, have made one of the finest films of 2010.
Based on the 1968 Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit tells the tale of 14-year old Mattie Ross’ (Hailee Steinfeld) quest to avenge the murder of her father at the hands of the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Following the cold blooded murder Chaney has fled into dangerous “Indian Territory” and joined up with Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang. Not thrilled with the efficiency of local law enforcement, Mattie enlist the help of one-eyed drunkard Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to help her track down Chaney and bring him to “Justice”. Before their hunt can begin they have a run in with a cocky Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who is also on the hunt for Chaney. Mattie reluctantly allows La Boeuf to join the chase, and now this group of misfits must work together to survive the harrowing wilderness of the old west as they track down Chaney.
The Coens know that this is a character driven tale, and they treat it accordingly with a very deliberate slow pace, giving the characters the time to breathe and interact. The pacing for some might be a bit too slow, but for those willing to be swept up in the journey, the reward is more than worth it.
More straightforward than their usual fair, the film is still sprinkled with the usual offbeat quirkiness that The Coen Brothers are famous for. A particularly memorable example of this comes early on when Mattie bargains with a horse trader for the money she feels is owed to her. The dialogue never strays into the absurd, but with her hardnosed twisting of logic she is able bend the situation into her favour in a very amusing way.
The original True Grit (1969) earned John Wayne his one and only Oscar, and with The Duke having such a loving fan base, much of the talk, pre-release, for this updated version has centred around Bridges ability to fill in the substantial boots left from Wayne’s original Rooster Cogburn. Bridges could have gone many ways with his performance, but what he decided to do was to pay homage to Wayne, but ultimately, to give his own interpretation and make this character his own. It’s just the right mix, and Bridges passes with flying colours. He is also given help to achieve distinction between Wayne and his own performances by the way his directors have chosen to tell this story. The Coen Brothers have stated that this adaption would be more loyal to the source material than the 1969 original. While the original True Grit was a star vehicle for John Wayne, and changes were made to reflect that fact, this new version shifts its focus to the character of young Mattie Rose, completely changing the tone of the story and making comparisons to the original, ultimately mute.
Placing so much weight on a young performer is always a risky choice, but Hailee Steinfeld (13-years old at the time of shooting) is a revelation. She doesn’t just hold herself when playing opposite her more seasoned co-stars, but completely demands the screen for the whole of the films running time. She is the star of this movie, an amazing effort for someone so young. The rest of the performances across the board are also good. Damon seems to be having a good time hamming it up, and Brolin and Peppers are menacing in the small screen time they are given. The Coens are known for their ability to get strong performances out of their actors, and this is the case yet again.
No review for this film would be complete without the mention of the cinematography by Roger Deakins. From the hauntingly beautiful first shot, Deakins is able to capture the harsh beauty of the Wild West.
It was probably only a matter of time until the Coens made a fully fledged western; No Country for Old Men was practically a western in a modern setting. Glorious to look at, and held together by fine performances, True Grit is another wonderful entry in the Coen Brother’s cannon, and the definitive version of Charles Portis’ novel.
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