- Movie Rating -

True Grit (2010)

| December 23, 2010 | 0 Comments

It is almost general principle with me that I usually detest the idea of a remake. They are, from my experience, less a movie experience than a filmed deal. The exception, however, is when a filmmaker finds a new spin on the original material. That seems to be the case with True Grit in which The Brothers Coen seem less inclined to remake the John Wayne classic then to pry their story from the 1968 novel by Charlies Portis. That’s wise because the original film was centered on The Duke’s magnanimous presence. That film seems to have been put out of their minds – there are some acts you just can’t follow.

The Coen Brothers vision of True Grit never feels for one single second like a standard movie western. This is a movie in which all interiors and exteriors are sweaty, sun-bleached and coated in blood, sweat and tears – even down to the character’s very souls. Nothing here seems plastic, or put-together. We feel as if we are visiting a time long gone. The actors here make the material work by speaking in a semi-formal pattern, a manner of speech that is long gone and forgotten. It is a joy to hear.

The story isn’t the point, it is merely the strand to pull us through a series of interesting weather-beaten characters. It is set in motion by fresh-faced Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who comes to Fort Smith, Arkansas to collect the body of her murdered father and to find someone to bring the accused, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), to justice. With grief in her eyes and fire in her soul, she is dead set on hiring U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a scraggly old drunk who is never-the-less a dead shot. He doesn’t take her seriously but she plants her heels and he relents.

Also in the picture is LeBouef (Matt Damon) – pronounced “La-BEEF”, a polished and professional Texas Ranger. He has been tracking Chaney for months and wants to join in the search. He has the professionalism but less the experience – he is needless-to-say not impressed by Rooster’s reputation nor his drunkenness. He knows the job but Rooster is better at knowing the territory. These three make their way into Cherokee territory to find Chaney and his gang. That makes True Grit sound like a standard western. The plot is somewhat thin and that allows us to focus on the characters, which are specific and distinct.

The discovery in this movie is Hailee Steinfeld. At 14, she occupies the role of Mattie Ross as a young woman who seems ready for the world. Her tongue is her weapon, which she uses to talk down a man whom she feels owes her money for her late father’s horses. It is a scene that makes a star as she holds her temperament and argues her point in very specific terms. To look into her face is to see a girl who hasn’t been beaten down by life but her eyes tell a different story. She knows the harsh terrain of the world in which she exists. She comes imbued with a level of maturity and a Presbyterian-Protestant ethic that keeps her heart strong. She is not taken seriously but soon changes the opinions of the men around her simply by speaking in plan, unbroken terms. What makes Steinfeld so effective is that is devoid of anything cute or phony, there are no “actorly” manners here. It is a wonderful performance.

Jeff Bridges has the more difficult task. He is charged with recreating a role made famous by John Wayne. He overcomes that obstacle by simply playing Cogburn on a different level. While the original was a vehicle for Wayne, Bridges disappears into the terrain. Donning a battered old hat and a leather eye patch (which is never explained) he is a man who has had all the experience that the American west can cast upon a man. His voice is graveled by tobacco and whiskey. His gait is stammered by a weight problem. All that remains of his reputation is his common sense and his dead-shot skill with a rifle.

Bridges never stands out as an actor in a role. Instead he is a man who exists as part of his environment. That environment is populated by a gaggle of people both professional and villainous who seem to have welled up out of the dust and decay of this western terrain. Not the least of which is Tom Chaney himself who, to my surprise, isn’t the slick evil presence that I had suspected. He is, instead, a small man, a self-pitying whiner who we imagine killed Mattie’s father but not exactly in cold blood.

True Grit never feels like a Coen Brothers movie. They seem to be trying out new material here, as if the material itself was more important to them than simply an entertainment. Like their great movie Fargo, they have the confidence to know that they have such interesting character that the story doesn’t need to be packed with heavy side-plots. It is straight down the line, following characters that we come to know, and come to care about.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2010) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Drama, Western