Generally, I don’t like reviews that psycho-analyze the filmmakers involved, but there’s simply no way to discuss the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit without marveling on how confident a film it is. This is a film which makes none of the traditional Hollywood moves to get the audience interested, and in fact does a number of things that audiences are not “supposed” to like, and nobody cares. The Coens just walk right up to you, seize your attention, and never let go.
Charles’ Portis’ novel True Grit, about 14-year-old Mattie Ross and her efforts to employ U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn to find the man who murdered her father, was made into one of John Wayne’s defining films in 1969, the only film for which Wayne won an Academy Award. That film actually did do most of the typical Hollywood things: it hired 22-year-old Kim Darby to play Mattie, singer Glen Campbell was brought in to play the affable Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, Rooster’s drunkenness was softened so that Wayne would always appear to be a competent hero, and it altered Portis’ dark ending.
The Coens do no such thing. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster as a man who barely achieves competence when sober, and is barely able to walk when in his cups. Hailee Steinfeld, 13 at time of shooting, seems to be going on 40 in the role of Mattie. Matt Damon’s LaBeouf is undermined at every turn; there is a great deal of doubt as to whether he is, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle. Portis’ achingly sad conclusion remains intact. The film is much, much stronger for all of it.
There simply aren’t enough good things to say about Steinfeld, who was chosen from an applicant pool that was rumored to exceed 15,000 teenagers. Much like the Coen film Miller’s Crossing, the odd dialogue sets up the world here, and the more complicated the dialogue is, the better job of setting up it does. Thus Steinfeld’s greatest victory is just being able to maintain the emotion that she needs during a given scene while keeping the dialogue intelligible.
But more than that, she never loses the core of righteous indignation that keeps Mattie going. Whether Mattie is negotiating with a flabby lawyer or staring down “Lucky Ned” Pepper (Barry Pepper, all but unrecognizable), there is not an ounce of uncertainty in her. At the beginning of the film we might guess it to be religious fervor, since Mattie can quote the Bible with uncanny accuracy, but it’s more than even that. Steinfeld delivers an adult’s intelligence, but tempered with a child’s lack of understanding that justice is not easy or absolute in this world.
As for Bridges … well, if you’re a fan of John Wayne then you should probably just click the Back button right now. I don’t like Wayne in the 1969 True Grit. Much like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen or Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, he was awarded the Best Actor Oscar as a sort of lifetime achievement award for a film in which he played a more blustery version of himself. Bridges is better in every way, in part because the Coens have written for him a more ambiguous Rooster Cogburn.
Thanks to the peerless courtroom scene at the beginning of the film, there’s always a question as to whether he’s a lawman with true grit, or just a thief and assassin who has conned the law into standing up for him. The Coens add a scene in which Cogburn and LaBoeuf argue about Cogburn’s service under William Quantrill,* which might not mean much if you don’t know the history. Nonetheless, it turns doubt onto Rooster’s claim that he was ever a soldier. That doubt is exactly where Bridges’ performance lives – Mattie’s righteous fury makes him question whether he was ever righteous about anything, and the question is in Bridges’ acting even under the scraggly beard, eyepatch, and growling accent.
Best of all, especially for a remake, is that the Coens have wandered so far from the 1969 movie that you don’t know what to expect unless you’ve read Portis’ book. Many people know of the famous scene where Wayne shouts “fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” and rides into a one-on-four fight. Minimal spoilers here: that same scene appears in this version, but the previous hour and a half have been so different that you don’t think it will end the same way.
As you might expect, the point of both films is that each of the three protagonists has true grit in their own way. You might expect that to be an awesome, heroic thing to find out, but this film’s ending is heartbreakingly sad. To have grit is a thing which wears down the people around you, drives them away, until it is all you have. And time, of course, takes the grit out of everyone sooner or later. Maybe it’s not the most crowd-pleasing way to end a picture, but it’s honest, which is what the most confident filmmakers are always aiming for.
Reviewed by Mark Young
* A notorious marauder who slaughtered women and children in Lawrence, Kansas during the “Bleeding Kansas” period just prior to the Civil War.