Now here is a movie deserving of its title, as True Grit, is truly, as tough and gritty as they come. I must confess that I do ever so love a good western. Like many, I grew up watching countless westerns with my dad and my grandfather. There’s just something very special and timeless about that period of history just after the Civil War up until start of the 20th century, at least as far as movies are concerned. And when it comes to westerns, few of them were as watched and re-watched by me and pops more than the original 1969 version of this movie starring the irreplaceable John Wayne. So with that in my mind I did approach this film with a bit of caution when I first heard about it, as it is no light matter to go tinkering around with classics, but the Coen Brothers here have managed to create a film that is at once as good as the original and completely independent from it in terms of style, tone, and pacing. So much so in fact that the fears I had going in about having that prior film being brought to mind were quickly dissipated and I found myself completely lost within this tremendous picture, enjoying it on its own merits.
Now, it is not my goal in this review to state whether this movie is better or worse than the original, it is simply a great movie that stands on its own two feet, as was the original. And in any event, these two True Grits we have now are so vastly different in their aim and scope that they really defy comparison in that respect anyway, except of course in the elemental aspects of the story itself and in the characters. In the original, John Wayne and director Henry Hathaway were less worried with being faithful to the original novel (which had just came out) than they were with just making a rollicking good movie, which they did, while the Coens here very much, according to them, as I have not read the book myself, put the novel on a pedestal and played it strictly as it was on the page. In doing so the Coens managed to take what was, in movie form anyway, a fun romp of an old classic Hollywood western in the original version and turn it into a dark moody modern western, with that classic Coen brothers edge, and great dialogue in this case provided directly from the very funny and period accurate lines from the original novel by Charles Portis.
The gist of the story is as follows, young Mattie Ross’s father has been murdered by a cowardly no good ruffian by the name of Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin. Now it is up to her to see that justice is done and she is looking for the most capable man for the job to go down deep into the Indian territories and smoke out and capture the dirty murdering scoundrel. And found him she has; it’s just that man also happens to be the dirtiest, meanest, drunkest, most unkempt, orneriest old coot his side of theMississippi, the honorable Rueben “Rooster” J. Cogburn, United States Marshal at your service. Ross is no pushover herself, young spirited and full of enough grit and sass herself to match wit and words with any horse trader or snake oil salesmen she could possibly come across, and this of course, drives the good Marshal Cogburn up the wall as he soon finds himself with the unenviable task of having to drag this mouthy little brat all the way along this treacherous journey with him. He doesn’t have to bear the burden alone though, as they are joined in this hunt by a Texas Ranger named “LaBoeuf” (Lah-beef) played here by Matt Damon who is already on the trail of this Chaney fellow for other crimes committed, including murdering the porch dog of a well beloved senator in Texas. Chaney himself is now joined in with a rough and tumble gang of old west hoodlums under the direction of one “Lucky” Ned Pepper, played here, appropriately enough by Berry Pepper, taking over the role from original movie played by Robert Duvall. Pepper himself is an old enemy of Rooster, and still bares the mark from where Rooster shot him in the lower lip in a previous dust up.
I was quite excited to see Jeff Bridges take on the Rooster Cogburn role ever since I heard he was the one who would be starring in this movie. I’ve been a long time fan of his, as he is one of the truly great underrated, and understated actors of ours, or any generation, and has quietly built up a career of great and eclectic performances in movies like The Last Picture Show, The Fisher King, The Big Lebowski, and the list goes on and on and on. It was while watching him in the role of over the hill country singer Bad Blake in the great little 2009 drama “Crazy Heart” that I really started to think ahead to how good Bridges could be in this role, and he surely did not disappoint.
Unlike his predecessor, The Duke, Bridges doesn’t have that classic swagger and screen presence to bully his way through this movie, although not to say he doesn’t have a presence, but no actor can stand up to John Wayne in that regard, but in my opinion anyway, that works out big time in this movie’s favor, as what is required here is for us to forget about the actor and just get lost in the character of Cogburn, which we do. John Wayne was great at playing John Wayne, in fact, nobody has ever or will ever top him at that, and when he was Rooster Cogburn, he was basically still playing John Wayne, except a drunker, more talkative John Wayne with an eye patch. Bridge’s Cogburn is much less boisterous, and you can see the years of wear and tear on his face, and the effect his alcoholism has had on him. Every little line tells its own story. He looks like a hard haggard man who has lived a hard and rugged life, and you have no doubt he’d put a bullet through your eyes if he had to and not lose one damn bit of sleep over it.
The real powerhouse of this movie, is not Bridges as Rooster Cogburn though, but Hailee Steinfeld who undoubtedly wins the contest of “best Mattie Ross” by leaps and bounds. Her fast talking, take no BS from anyone attitude and dogged determination make for a really remarkable and interesting leading character. We see this story from her point of view anyway, so it is crucial that the casting for this role be spot on, and boy was it ever. I hope this leads to many more big time roles for this young lady, as she has all the potential and talent in the world to make a real splash. If she was at all nervous or jittery, she was only 13 at the time of shooting; it does not show up a bit. It is remarkable that the biggest movie star in this film, Matt Damon is the least touted or noticed of everyone, although he more than holds his own in an important supporting role, and again easily trumps Glenn Campbell’s amateurish (although not embarrassingly so) outing in the original, although that’s not a knock on the original, as it made perfect sense to cast Campbell, a famous country crooner, in that role, as was often done in classic old Hollywood westerns. Roger Deakins should not go unmentioned here as the cinematography, (the look, feel, etc) is absolutely pitch perfect here.
The film is very dark in parts, but not in that horrid 3D on a 2D screen kind of way, it is a meaningful, vivid darkness. And of course, this being a western, I should mention there is plenty of action to chew your teeth on, although the true joy here is just escaping into these wild characters interaction with one another, as they go on this journey together. Basically, if you are at all a fan of westerns, this is one to be sure not to miss. It reminds me in its tone very much of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’, which also won Best Picture the year it came out, and it is equally as good as that, which is not praise I dish out lightly. So what are you waiting for? “Fill your hands you son of a bitch!”; That is, with the DVD/Blu-Ray of this movie, right away.