More than four decades ago John Wayne won an Academy Award for his performance in True Grit as the drunken U.S. Marshall hired by a young woman to track down the man responsible for killing her father. It would be the first, and only, time the actor would take home an Oscar.
Deciding to remake the film, the Coen brothers went back to the original novel by Charles Portis to give us their reinterpretation of the story. The result is the brothers most mainstream film to date: a traditional western filled with strong performances and splashes of the filmmakers’ trademark wit.
The film begins and ends with the narration (provided by Elizabeth Marvel, who plays the character in later scenes) of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who at the age of 14 travels to collect the body of her recently deceased father and hire a bounty hunter to track down his murderer (Josh Brolin).
The young Miss Steinfeld is impressive. This version of True Grit really is Mattie’s tale, presented entirely from her perspective. The film’s smartest character, Mattie Ross is not to be reckoned with. This is something many characters come to realize when they make the mistake of underestimating the young woman only to draw her ire including Coburn, LaBoeuf, and, in one of the film’s most humorous scenes, local businessman Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews).
Jeff Bridges takes the John Wayne role and makes it his own. This version of ‘Rooster’ Cogburn is a drunk, ruthless as he is lazy, and at times even incompetent, but he has a sense of honor and can be counted on when it matters most. And Matt Damon is perfect as the self-important Texas Ranger who, though talented, is every bit the fool Mattie and Cogburn take him for.
What surprised me most about the Coen’s take on the film is how humorous this version of True Grit feels. No, it’s not a comedy, but the film includes several sly moments which had me chuckling. The choice to include the language of the book and the style of speaking of this time period is also a good one. The dialogue is first rate and there was only once when I felt it was used for a cheap laugh rather than help frame the tale.
I also have to praise cinematographer Roger Deakins for the look of the film. Although much of True Grit takes place in a rather barren wilderness, the film is beautiful to look at and includes several memorable shots from the train’s arrival in Fort Smith to Cogburn’s race across the open plain after Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).
Those familiar with the Coen’s work can expect a little oddity now and again including a bizarre scene involving a dentist (Ed Corbin) on horseback clad in bear skins. Although the film has several such moments the humor isn’t off-putting, as is the case with some of their earlier work. I don’t know whether or not we needed a remake of True Grit, but the version the Coen brothers deliver is one of the year’s best films.