From the Duke to the Dude, the Coen Brothers put their own indelible stamp on the Western in this latest adaptation of the 1968 novel, True Grit, by Charles Portis. Portis’s book was previously brought to the screen a year after publication in a film directed by Henry Hathaway with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, a surly, one-eyed U.S. Marshal. It was a role that earned Wayne his one and only Oscar.
The Coens’ remake goes back to the source material to create a darker film, but one that is not nearly as nihilistic as their previous works like No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man. While Hathaway’s film was set in the Colorado Rockies during autumn, the Coens take their story back to the frontiers of Arkansas (though it was shot in New Mexico and Texas) during the cold winter. The Coens’ long-time D.P. Roger Deakins skillfully manages to capture the desolation and loneliness of this world. The only way to describe Deakins’ cinematography would be beautiful bleakness. It is a harsh world that young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) finds herself.
Mattie arrives in the town of Ft. Smith to collect the body of her father, who was murdered by a drifter in his employ named Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin). Only 14 years of age, Mattie carries herself with more confidence, and intelligence than most of the adults she encounters. Mattie will need all the stern maturity she can muster as she embarks on a startling rite of passage. By the end of her first day in Ft. Smith, Mattie witnesses the hanging of three men and spends the night in the undertaker’s parlor amidst the company of some newly arrived corpses. The next morning, Mattie sets about finding a lawman with “grit” to hunt down Cheney and bring him to justice. To do this, Mattie seeks out the meanest, orneriest cuss around. She finds him in Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) with a patch over his right eye (the opposite of Wayne) and a belly full of whiskey.
Cogburn reluctantly accepts the job to find Cheney who is hiding out in Indian Territory with a band of outlaws led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). However, he draws the line when it comes to young Mattie accompanying him on the quest. Undeterred, Mattie follows to ensure the deed is done joined by another tagalong in LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who has hunted Cheney for months for the murder of a senator.
True Grit isn’t an outright revisionist film as it is a twist on classic Western iconography. It is grimier and, yes, grittier where the lush visuals of Monument Valley disappear in favor of barren country landscapes and dead trees. The heroes’ journey is dotted with the surreal touches that are par for the course in a Coen Brothers film, such as an encounter with a hanging body and a frontiersman in a bearskin. As portrayed by Bridges, Rooster Cogburn gives a whole new meaning to the term grizzled. Yes, Wayne did play him as something of a past-his-prime drunk, but he never lost the trademark swagger that made him a movie legend. With a gruff growl to his voice, Bridges isn’t afraid to make his Cogburn look foolish from time to time. He doesn’t get the grand entrance like Wayne in Stagecoach or Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West. The first time we meet Cogburn, his voice bellows from inside an outhouse as he tends to “prior business.” But, damn if Cogburn still doesn’t look badass with the reins in his mouth riding into a gun blazing showdown with the bad guys (“Fill your hands, you son of a bitch.”)
Not to be outdone is Matt Damon, an upgrade from the inexplicable casting of the “Rhinestone Cowboy” crooner, Glen Campbell. Damon’s LaBeouf (or as he pronounces it, Le Beef) is a bit of a Southern dandy, clad in jangling spurs and a fringed jacket. A play on the virtuous white hats, LaBeouf is overly sensitive to the jabs of his companions at his overinflated opinion of himself. So too is Brolin’s Cheney an atypical black hat. He’s more of a coward and a whiner than he is the frighteningly skillful gunhand in the vein of Jack Palance in Shane or Michael Biehn in Tombstone. At one point, an exasperated Cheney pathetically mopes and mutters to himself, “Everything is against me.”
Therein lies another uniquely Coen touch to True Grit, the dialogue. Many lines are lifted directly out of the original novel and Portis’s idiosyncratic lines feel as if they come right out of Joel and Ethan’s playbook. In their vision of the Old West, nobody uses contractions.
True Grit is a rare confluence of talent where the acting, the writing, and the direction all come together to create a fantastic film. Yet, none of that would mean anything if the central role of Mattie Ross was improperly cast. Where Hathaway went with an older actress in the then 20-year old Kim Darby, the Coens discovered 13-year old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. To use a well-worn cliché, Steinfeld is a revelation, able to convey poise beyond her years. She also displays the same gift of gab possessed by other Coen-created protagonists. Her unwavering logic and firm grasp of language enable her to verbally emasculate a horse trader, who has underestimated this pre-pubescent customer. Mattie’s thrust upon adulthood is symbolized when she sheds her schoolmarm black dress and dons her late-father’s coat and hat, both of which are two sizes too big for her. Yet, she never sheds her tightly braided pigtails thus maintaining an innocence about her.