Back in ’69 John ‘The Duke’ Wayne won himself an Academy Award for his performance as Rueben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn in Henry Hathaway’s classic western ‘True Grit’. It might’ve been a curious thing back in ’69 giving The Duke an award for playing another variation of himself, but he was The Duke for goodness sakes so I don’t think anybody would’ve or should’ve complained about that. Not that I give any credence to awards assigned arbitrarily by corrupt committees. Forty some odd years later the Coen brothers have made another version of ‘True Grit’… not a remake of the John Wayne classic I’m told but a closer adaptation of the Charles Portis novel and they have given us a movie that is…well… good. True Grit 2010 is a good movie. I will admit I was expecting more than a good movie, but believe me when I tell you, I will take a good movie and run with it.
Fourteen year old Mattie Ross (Haylee Steinfeld) is very upset because the scoundrel known as Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has murdered her father, stolen his gold coins in addition to pilfering his stallion and nobody seems interested in bringing Tom Chaney to justice. Mattie Ross, if nothing else, has a lot of heart and she has chosen to take it upon herself to bring Chaney to justice, but the kid isn’t stupid and realizes that she will need some assistance in pulling this off. Those in the know have told Mattie that she needs a U.S. Marshall to get this job done and there is no U.S. Marshall tougher and meaner and drunker than Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Rooster is resistant to the young girls offer but she is, if nothing else, persistent and eventually he takes on the job. Also along for the ride, off and on, considering the poor treatment he is receiving from both Mattie and Rooster is verbose Texas Ranger Mr. LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is searching for Chaney for his crimes against humanity in the great state of Texas.
So off they go across the rough terrain of Indian Country, Rooster and his precocious sidekick, with Rooster coming around to having this kid along for the ride since he has somebody to talk to for a change. Plus, it would appear, he has somebody around to do the dirty work that he cannot or will not do. Rooster has very little problem in putting this girl in harm’s way. Circumstance also brings Mr. LeBoeuf back into the
fold, for good this time, with everyone having an increased appreciation for each other and their particular skills. More importantly, at least if you happen to be Rooster Cogburn, he’s found himself a case whiskey which is like me and you finding a satchel of uncut South African diamonds.
But where in the world is Tom Chaney? Well, if you’ve seen the trailer for this movie you will know that the somewhat slow witted Tom Chaney is right over there and now young Mattie finds herself in imminent danger. The scoundrel Tom Chaney would just a soon see Mattie lined up right along with her old man, for good reason one could argue, unless the drunken Marshall and the talky Texas Ranger can intervene in time to help a girl out. It is a Coen Brother’s movie so this may or may not happen.
I haven’t seen the first ‘True Grit’ since I saw it on CBS Latenite some thirty years ago while I was in elementary school so considering I don’t remember it all that well I will not be comparing the two movies. I will say that the Coen Brother’s doing a western did pique my interest so I ended up more so comparing this version of ‘True Grit’ against other Coen Brother’s movies than against the John Wayne original. In hindsight I probably shouldn’t have done that either, even though I don’t know if that could be avoided. You see comparing ‘True Grit’ to ‘Fargo’ or ‘No Country for Old Men’ or ‘Barton Fink’ can only lead to disappointment because this movie isn’t nearly as powerful as those movies, but apart from those it is still a very good movie. More importantly it is also a very good western.
No, Jeff Bridges doesn’t possess John Wayne’s majestic presence, but he does possess something slightly better than The Duke in that he has the ability to embody the character of Rooster Cogburn, and few can take over a character as well as Mr. Bridges can take over a character. But as good as Jeff Bridges may have been in this movie the weight of carrying this movie fell on the young, and as it turns out sturdy shoulders of Haylee Steinfeld who has created a character in Mattie Ross than has the ability to be mighty irritating and slightly annoying while at the same time completely engaging. That’s not easy to do I’m thinking.
The performances across the board, from Matt Damon as the somewhat goofy Texas Ranger and a damn near unrecognizable Barry Pepper as the bandit Lucky Ned, were all top notch which is fairly critical considering the style of the language used in this film which is closer to the language of the novel and somewhat unconventional from what we are used to. Not unlike Shakespeare where it is important to understand what the unfamiliar order of words mean while they are being delivered for the sake of the viewing audience, the Portis’ novel is similar in this vein and the actors pulled this off, Steinfeld in particular, without a hitch. It is barely worth mentioning, because it is so expected from a Coen Brother’s film, that the settings and atmosphere and the entire look and feel of ‘True Grit’ was above and beyond reproach, giving one the feeling that you are actually in the old gritty west. I guess. I’ve actually never been in the old gritty west but I’m guessing it had to feel a lot like this.
The only real criticism I can muster up for this version of ‘True Grit’ is that it’s not a great film. It didn’t capture my soul and carry me away like I expect great films to do, like for instance ‘Fargo’ did. And if the worst thing you can say about a movie is to say it’s not as good as arguably one of the best movies ever made and only entertained you greatly for two hours, then this is a criticism I think I could live with.