Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has recently suffered a bereavement: her father was shot dead after intervening in a drunken brawl, and it appears the culprit, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) will get away scot-free after he flees into the mountains. Mattie is having none of that, and decides she will recruit a marshall to assist her in tracking the outlaw, settling on one Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) - but he is reluctant to go along with her wishes, even if she has managed to work up enough money to pay him. Yet the call of justice is too much for him to ignore...
As remakes went, the Coen Brothers' True Grit was nowhere near the disaster their remake of The Ladykillers had been, mainly thanks to a far more respectful treatment of the material (and there were more genuine laughs in this 2010 movie to boot). That was unavoidable, as the original had brought Western icon John Wayne his only Oscar, which could have been seen in its day as conservative Hollywood asserting their authority over the young upstarts and therefore all the reason the Coens needed to go crazy with their own imaginings of how the story should be told.
That was not the case, but the respect they were paying was less for Wayne and more for the source, Charles Portis' novel which had been delighting readers for decades. This was intended to be as faithful as possible, and there was a striking mood of authenticity to the period that was most apparent in the language. The Coens made no secret of their love of dialogue, and many of their examples had passed into quotable movie legend, so the cast had to prove their worth as they handled the rich wordplay offered them, either going the impeccable diction route (Steinfeld) or the growling and mumbling route (Bridges).
Certainly this True Grit was a pleasure to listen to, but the sense of keeping it real as far as the setting went did leave proceedings feeling on the preserved side rather than the vibrant area that some scenes would spark into life for, only to return to the dutiful air of before. Still, with such excellent performances under their directors' instruction there was was much to engage, not least the rolling landscapes Cogburn (finally persuaded) and Mattie ride through. They are joined on this quest by a companion, Texas Ranger Laboeuf (Matt Damon), who trades quips and barbs with Cogburn throughout over who is the best suited to the job.
In the end there's little surprise about who really is the finest hunter, but that award is hard won when the bad guys are so unutterably mean, and not only the elusive Chaney. Along the way there are eccentrics like the bearskin-sporting vet and general medical practitioner who pose no threat though add to the colour, but also the villains who would seek to obfuscate and hinder, such as the duo Cogburn corners in a cabin and finds himself doing brief, violent battle with. You could half believe it was a true story the way it is carried over from the page to the screen, but the question most would be asking was if it was better than the original, and if not why bother remaking it all? The answer was that it was about equal judged by changing standards, with Bridges at least as enjoyable in his role as Wayne had been, but not eclipsing him, and the adventurous nature of the tale well conveyed in each. Music by Carter Burwell.
Actually, the Wayne version did a fair job preserving the novel's vivid dialogue. The problem was Henry Hathaway seemed caught between crafting a faithful adaptation and cranking out just another John Wayne vehicle. If only Howard Hawks had directed instead. Matt Damon is way better in his role than Glenn Campbell ever was.
1 Aug 2011
But have you heard Matt Damon's rendition of Wichita Lineman?