(Joel and Ethan Coen, 2010, USA)
More a retelling than a remake of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 original (itself an adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel) starring John Wayne, the Coen Brothers return once again to the territory that served them so well with No Country For Old Men; True Grit, perhaps their most straightforward film in terms of narrative, is a gritty western with verve and visual panache to boot. Staying truer to the darker ingredients of the original source material, The Coen’s version seems like a fine fit for their filmmaking style; initially uncomplicated plots, morally conflicted characters with sinister motivations and treacherous societies rife with greed, conflict and corruption, elements injected into this simple revenge tale with the duo’s considerable ease.
Set in 1880’s America, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld stars a Mattie Ross, a stubborn, fearless 14 year old who requests the services of a local U.S. Marshal to help track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) the man who murdered her father in cold blood. Despite the options of more qualified Marshals, Mattie propositions Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a gruff and curmudgeonly gunslinger who shoots first and asks questions later, letting his gun do all the talking in the process. Initially reluctant, Cogburn accepts her money and, with Mattie in tow, embarks on the search for Chaney along with a Texas Ranger named Labeouf, who is also on the hunt for Chaney but for different reasons, played with smug tenderness by Matt Damon.
Their journey suffers numerous setbacks, chiefly Cogburn and Labeouf’s constant backbiting and competing over who’s the better lawman (illustrated in a comical sequence where the two go about tossing and shooting at plummeting cornbread), Cogburn’s begrudging paternal affection for Mattie and indeed his affection for getting drunk on whiskey. Their search begs many questions; will the trio learn to work together to achieve their greater goal? And will the exposure of Cheney’s whereabouts really earn Mattie the retribution she has been seeking?
A relatively simple storyline for the Coen Brothers, devoid of their atypical twists and turns, is no bad thing, they lend their version of the story a great deal of humour, empathy and threat that could rarely be found in the 1969 original. Similarly, the filmmakers’ affinity for working with top dollar actors is all too evident here, True Grit is propelled by superb performances from each of the three main cast members, especially Steinfeld who effectively owns the entire film, pulling the rug somewhat from Bridges who is, again, at his award-winning best as the gruff Cogburn, who goes from reluctant employee to gallant protector effortlessly. The two share a gentle, familiar chemistry which makes their on screen relationship seem all the more genuine, important as their rapport gives the film its heart. I’d say that Brolin was the only weak link, as his portrayal of Chaney was a little schlocky and exaggerated, even if he is rarely on screen.
The straightforwardness of the narrative does lead the film to slow down a few too many times, robbing the film of the Coen’s usually meandering tone, though as per usual their abilities in the scripting and visuals department are as commendable as ever, praise that can largely be attributed to regular collaborator Roger Deakins. Deakins is fully deserving of his long overdue Oscar for his sublime cinematography, lending the film a stark, sombre and at times shadowy colour palette, something rarely seen in the usually sun-kissed canvases of the genre. True Grit is very much a contemporary-inspired Western, and while it’s not one of the Coens’ better films, it remains a strong and worthy entry in the brothers’ nearly unblemished filmography.