Okay, I’d better start by letting people know that I have neither seen the original movie nor read the novel by Charles Portis that this movie is based on. I just knew that it was a Coen Brothers movie and that was enough for me. Having said that, their last remake (2004’s The Ladykillers) was the one movie from them that I absolutely loathed.
There was never any need to have fear this time around, however, as most people gathered when they saw the trailer and then, later, when the advance positive word started snowballing and almost everyone mentioned how great it was that The Dude (Jeff Bridges) had been placed in the role previously made iconic by The Duke (John Wayne, of course, for those who don’t know their cowboys).
The story concerns a 14-year-old girl (Mattie Ross, played wonderfully by Hailee Steinfeld) who hires the services of grizzled U.S. Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges) to track down and get revenge on Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. But there’s also a Texas Ranger (LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon) wanting a piece of the action, complicating matters slightly. And Cogburn also wants to get his shot with Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).
True Grit has a lot of things featured that you could say about almost every other Coen Brothers movie. The composition and cinematography (Roger Deakins doing some fine work yet again) are wonderful, and often downright beautiful. The writing is superb – characters all getting their moments and there is just as much wit as there is a brooding threat of violence – but I don’t know how much of that comes from the Coen Brothers themselves and how much is lifted directly from the novel. I’m going to be optimistic and believe that it’s so rewarding as much for what they wrote and decided to lift from the page as what they didn’t.
Then we have the performances. This is not a movie that leaves room for anyone just picking up a paycheck. Jeff Bridges shows that he was absolutely the right actor to fill those big boots and embodies a character that many Western fans will already know so well while also bringing a bit of his own personality to shine out from under the facial hair. Matt Damon’s character isn’t quite as larger than life but he’s never outshone and, certainly in the latter half of the movie, holds his own beside the big fella. Josh Brolin – I am genuinely struggling at this point to think of the last time he put in a bad performance but, regardless, his small but vital role here is yet another great turn from the man. Barry Pepper’s role is also a relatively small one but he’s as excellent as he often is (am I the only guy who has been wanting to see more of this man onscreen since that memorable turn in Saving Private Ryan? Use this talented actor more, dagnammit).
Thrown amidst these talented men is young Hailee Steinfeld and I will be very surprised if I see a better performance from a young woman in the foreseeable future. She gives her character a mix of strength, vulnerability, intelligence, naivete, sass, sweetness, kindness and much more while at all times reminding those trying to sweep her aside that she is intent on having her revenge against the man who killed her father. It’s absolutely pitch-perfect, neither too wide-eyed and sweet nor too adult and cold, and Steinfeld is a young actress I only hope we get to see in many more roles.
One misfire in a career as long as the Coen Brothers have had so far is expected but to have so many cast-iron greats in there is quite the feat. They’ve added another quality selection to the canon with this one, a movie that works as a classic Western without ever feeling dated or clichéd. And, considering it’s also a remake, that’s really saying something.
DIRECTOR: ETHAN COEN, JOEL COEN
STARS: HAILEE STEINFELD, JEFF BRIDGES, MATT DAMON, JOSH BROLIN, BARRY PEPPER
RUNTIME: 110 MINS APPROX