Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross
Matt Damon as LaBoeuf
Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney
Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper
Dakin Matthews as Col. Stonehill
Jarlath Conroy as Undertaker
Paul Rae as Emmett Quincy
Elizabeth Marvel as 40 Year-Old Mattie
Ed Corbin as Bear Man
Roy Lee Jones as Yarnell
Bruce Green as Harold Parmalee
Remakes are tricky. To begin with, no one bothers to remake bad movies very often for the simple reason that most bad movies aren’t memorable enough to stick in someone’s imagination, make them wonder about different ways to do it. The natural consequence of this is that most remakes come from good films, leading to unavoidable questions about why redo it and what new insights have been brought to the original material.
It’s been 41 years since John Wayne’s version of the Charles Portis novel, enough time for the Golden Age of the Western Wayne represented to fade away and be replaced by the modern deconstructed Western, so if nothing else a remake of “True Grit” could give us an interesting view of old versus new. And in the hands of the Coen Brothers (“No Country for Old Men”), a modern deconstructed Western is exactly what we get.
Mattie Ross’s (Hailee Steinfeld) father was gunned down in cold blood, and she aims to get retribution, and nothing’s going to stop her. When she learns the man responsible (Josh Brolin) has disappeared into the Indian Territories, she hires her own posse–consisting solely of the roughest, meanest, shoot-at-first-sightest gunslinging bounty hunter she can find (Jeff Bridges)–and sets off in pursuit.
While the original was a John Wayne vehicle through and through, the grit of the novel refers to Mattie herself, a 14-year-old girl in a dangerous and unsettled land who nonetheless can and will persevere through any obstacle set in her way by sheer force of will. The Coens have taken this idea to heart, seating their new film firmly from Mattie’s point of view as they slowly and subtly look at the toll men’s individual choices take on them.
It’s a risky choice, left almost entirely to the quality of the casting of the role. In newcomer Hailee Steinfeld the Coen’s have found just the right mix of vulnerability and gumption to make Mattie work without ever feeling trite or overbearing. It helps a great deal, of course, that she has Coen Brothers dialogue to act from which is as on point as ever.
That being said, and despite the director’s best efforts, she does tend to get overshadowed by Bridges when he finally gets going. While the Coens have filled their take on “True Grit” with elegant banality to expand on the characters and the realistically boring nature of human beings that would have more naturally filled the Old West than quickdraw contests on Main Street, the fact is Cogburn is just too much larger than life (for all of his matter of factness) to take that sort of thing lying down. Bridges himself is perfectly cast in the role, whether he’s explaining how his second wife tried to make him a lawyer or ambushing four brigands at once, reins in his teeth and a six-shooter in each hand.
Mattie and Cogburn are joined in their quest by a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is inordinately proud of being a Texas Ranger and is also looking for their fugitive to collect a separate bounty on his head.
While there are plenty of sequences of disturbing violence and dark suspense in the typically excellent Coen Brothers style, the best moments are the ones between the three as they travel across Indian country. Cogburn and LaBoeuf, simple man and fancy dandy with airs of superiority, naturally do not like each other and neither of them thinks Mattie is up for the hunt, but through travels and travails they all learn better in a way that is simple and effective and never sentimental.
The Coens have brought along most of their usual contributors as well, creating a film that is beautiful from its dreamy opening shot of a dead body courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins, to its final melancholy moments. And Carter Burwell’s score, though this is said often, really is one of his best, particularly once bandit king Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper in a brief scene stealing performance) appears, allowing Burwell to build to a rising action climax crescendo of the like the Coens typically tease and then subvert. Here, it’s played completely straight, proving that they’re just as good at honest-to-god heroics as they are at irony.
And yet, “True Grit” never seems to rise above its origins. For all of the skill involved, an abiding sense of faithfulness to the original novel pervades the entire film, a faithfulness that ultimately holds it back. A novel is not a film and a film is not a novel; by sticking so close to the source material, “True Grit” as a film seems fettered, stuck following a pre-made path, and never able to create its own identity.
It’s fun and entertaining, as well as being dark and extremely violent, but nothing more than that. Those are plenty good qualities in and of themselves, but for a film that teases more at its opening it can’t quite deliver true greatness. That’s a small complaint, though, as what they have given us is as pure a Western of the golden age ever was.