Rapid Review: True Grit
The original True Grit was a movie I remember vaguely from childhood. It was one of my dad’s favorite movies, which meant if it was on cable that my dreams of watching Saved By the Bell were doomed from the outset. Let’s face it – a movie that stars the Duke and involves lots of scenery-chewing, revenge, and rolling sagebrush is a difficult movie to “re-imagine”. Yet, that is exactly what the Coen brothers (bravely) have done.
The movie itself is NOT based on the 1969 classic film with John Wayne as immortal, crotchety oldster Rooster Cogburn, but on the 1968 book by Charles Portis, in which the narration and point-of-view come from the wide-eyed tween Mattie, whose journey this really is in the first place. Mattie’s moral compass is her most dominant feature, and is presented in a package that comes standard with a strong measure of precocious intelligence.
Mattie (a great performance by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) is old enough to feel the anger involved in mourning her late father’s untimely death. She’s young enough not to realize that revenge is cliché in the Old West, but is working her way towards the grit mentioned in the title. She’s a thirty-year old in the body of a teenager – well-versed in proverbs, legalese and basic bartering skills, but not great on the human relations front.
Mattie is out to make their former farm hand Tom Chaney (played by Coen favorite Josh Brolin), suffer. He killed her father without provocation in a fit of drunkenness, and this makes Mattie’s moral fiber stand on end. No one apparently told her that revenge is tough to tackle when you are a 14-year-old surrounded by characters who are both shady and charismatic in equal measure.
These characters include U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (this time played with more depth and soul by Jeff Bridges) and spur-wearing, Appaloosa-riding Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (that’s Le BEEF, and not to be confused with a certain Transformers actor), who is played by the ever-versatile and surprising Matt Damon. Turns out that this Chaney guy has a past that includes more than Papa-cide; this guy’s Old West notoriety rap sheet is about a mile long.
There’s a conflict between Mattie, Cogburn and La Boeuf about what exactly should be done with the criminal in question once they catch him, and this is the thematic core of the film, providing the trigger for some of its more powerful scenes.
The great news about this not-so-original plot device is that it is virtually unimportant as the action builds, with the tense, interesting and thoughtful dialogue that comprises most of the film taking the center stage. The characters in True Grit are truly and sincerely engaging, and rapidly develop a dynamic that is central to the audience’s buy-in with the story. The Coen brothers are masters at the art of snappy, overtly intricate and artistically out-of-sync conversational style, and it is put to good use here. The movie is at times laugh-out loud funny, breaking some of the tension radiating through the barren and unforgiving landscape. Mattie’s relationship with these gruff, weathered (and at-times irritating) men is the core of the true story, and she learns as much from their tutelage as they do from her frank gumption.
Yes, there’s action, there are gun fights, and there will be a final showdown, although not necessarily the way one would traditionally expect. These aren’t what drive True Grit, and I’m grateful. The Coen brothers are best when they establish mood and characters that both fascinate and baffle. All the performers here are fantastic. It’s not on the same level of overall genius as Fargo or No Country For Old Men, but True Grit is more than just an acceptable “re-make”. It’s worth giving this story a second look with older and wiser eyes.
Overall Grade: A –