True Grit

The original 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit is remembered mostly because Rooster Cogburn is the role for which John Wayne won his only Oscar. That film is getting a lot of criticism in comparison to the Coen brothers’ version which is based more closely on the book, which has its fans.  The ’69 film, though, is a better than average western for the period. Sure, The Duke’s Oscar was more of a lifetime achievement award but his role was one of the better fits for the character he always played, namely himself. It is a fun and enjoyable film. But yes, John Wayne was always more of a movie star than an actor, while Jeff Bridges, who takes the role in the latest version, is one of the best actors working today. And if he gets nominated for this, it will be the second year in a row, which means he’ll be a pretty big movie star too. I doubt that he’ll ever be the icon that John Wayne is, however.

The plot is pretty simple. Mattie Ross, a determined to the point of stubbornness, thirteen year old girl played by Hailee Steinfeld hires Marshal Cogburn to track down an outlaw by the name of Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin. Chaney has fled into Indian territory and joined up with an outlaw gang headed by Ned Pepper, played by Barry Pepper. She insists on coming with the marshal. They are joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon.

This is a pretty straightforward movie for the Coen brothers. It has some of their favorite elements, namely eccentric characters and sudden and devastating violence, but not their usual theme of nihilistic anarchy. As a result it feels kind of light, not unenjoyable but not one of their major efforts either. Of course that still makes it one of the year’s best films.

The script is pretty well paced and retains the formal sounding dialog that the first movie and presumably the book has. I don’t know if people really talked like that back in the 1870’s but the lack of contractions and the everyday use of ten-dollar words and Latin phrases is an effective way to convey that we are in a different era. They also emphasize a few things that couldn’t be mentioned in a 1969 movie that hoped for a general audience, like the sexual attraction between LaBeouf and Mattie, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the John Wayne version, so I don’t remember if Mattie lost her arm to the snake venom in that one.

Jeff Bridges expertly treads a thin line here. He has the eye-patch and the duster, making him look like John Wayne; he navigates scenes that are close to the first movie’s. And yet his Rooster Cogburn manages to be distinct. There’s more meat on the role, more vulnerability, which makes his competence stand out more. Bridges drinks more and sways a lot more. And you can see his growing respect for Mattie and finally affection.

Hailee Steinfeld basically takes the same approach to Mattie that Kim Darby did in 1969. That’s because there really is only one way to play it. The only difference is that Darby was in her 20’s and Steinfeld is actually closer to age of the character. She’s brings to life this precocious girl that manages to cajole and even intimidate the middle-aged men she’s dealing with when settling her father’s estate. And yet there is also vulnerability there. When Cogburn has to shoot her beloved horse, she cries like any horse infatuated 14-year-old girl.

Matt Damon turns in his usual stellar performance as LaBeouf. He plays him as talkative but not a blowhard, affable but somewhat prickly if you besmirch the Texas Rangers. Josh Brolin’s Tom Chaney is an ignorant but dangerous man. Brolin captures that darkness in just a few deft scenes.  Barry Pepper’s Robert Duval impersonation is uncanny.

I always enjoy a good western and this True Grit certainly fills the bill. It is not, however,  significantly better than the ’69 version. Whether that’s because the Coen brothers version is not as good as critics are saying, or because the John Wayne version isn’t as bad, I can’t say, though I suspect the latter.

In the end it retains the excitement and humor of the first film, but lacks the Coen brothers edge.

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