Pros: Steinfeld and Bridges performances, Deakins' cinematography, Burwell's music, Coens screenplay and direction.
When I first learned that Joel and Ethan Cohen were re-making True Grit, I did not believe it. Then when I learned that Jeff Bridges (the Duuuude) was going to play Rooster Cogburn, I figured this was going to be a big mistake. I mean the Coens' remake of Ladykillers with Tom Hanks didn't work out too well and now taking on a popular movie known as the one that gave John Wayne his Oscar? As Glen Campbell might say.. Golly!!!
And then I thought, they actually convinced Jeff Bridges to step into a role made famous by John Wayne in 2 movies (True Grit and Rooster Cogburn with Katherine Hepburn)? What made him say yes to such a foolhardy thing? Was he bravely accepting a challenge or just very foolis?
It took me a while to accept this wasn't a practical joke or the Coens weren't doing a satire.
Then, as I started to accept the idea they were really making this movie and Jeff Bridges was really playing Rooster, I realized the original movie was re-written for John Wayne and shot to be a likeable old fashioned Western. The 1969 movie starring a very sick John Wayne (he was battling Cancer and was expected to die) and directed by Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway was a safe feel-good movie in an era of controversy ( Wild Bunch and Easy Rider). It took a very good book by Charles Portis and turned it into a John Wayne movie.
The Coens were interested in presenting a faithful adaptation of the Charles Portis book and give us a Western when most have given up on the genre. Well, I suppose if anyone could make this work, the Cohen's were the ones to trust in doing it.
Opening with the abbreviated Old Testament proverb: "The wicked flee when none pursueth", True Grit is a sweeping ambitious, very serious film. It's a pretty talky movie told from the viewpoint of a very brave, stubborn 14 year old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) who teams up with one-eyed, whiskey loving, big talking bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).
The Coens are pretty faithful to the novel (even using some of the dialogue from the book) but still reference a great Hollywood classic in a quiet, unobtrusive fashion. The classic? 1955's Night of the Hunter whose recurring hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms is heard several times throughout True Grit. Carter Burwell's musical choices are well done. I should note that in the novel, Rooster in his 40s, but in both movies Roosters at least 20 years older.
Bridges' rasping, mumbling frontiersman is a lot more nuanced a characterization then John Wayne's easy to like, big star portrayal. For those old enough to truly remember, the fact Wayne got an Oscar for True Grit was a surprise, because he was over-bearing and playing a two dimensional version of himself throughout the movie. He was still John Wayne and it was a fun performance to watch, particularly the big showdown scene, but the Oscar he received was more for his past work then for Grit. Most people thought he would probably die within a few months of making Grit, but he survived his cancer for several more years and managed to create a superb Oscar worthy performance in his last movie; The Shootist (he didn't win an Oscar for it, though).
Yes, Bridges is stepping into very big shoes playing Rooster Cogburn but to his credit, you never for a moment think Bridges is doing Wayne. In fact Bridges' performance is a fully realized, interesting detailed performance. A few times, the Cohen's decide to go for a ‘cute' audience pleasing reaction shot, but most of the time Bridges gets to mumble sometimes incoherently completely in character.
He's also NOT the whole show here. The film's focus is on the 14 year old Mattie. This is the story of a 14 year old righteous young woman who intends to enlist the meanest and toughest law man she possibly can to track down her father's killer. The unknown Hailee Steinfeld plays her without a trace of precociousness or cuteness and while Kim Darby brought to life the character in an old fashioned phony movie sort of way-the Coens allow no sentimentality here, and while Mattie's toughness doesn't have the liberated women subtext it did in 1969, the character is unique, believable and one you'll remember. Mattie's tough as nails and at times scared too but her goal is all that matters.
The regional dialect of the novel and it's wry humor is retained by the Coens who suppress most of their cynical, hip, self-effacing humor in service of the staying faithful to novelist Portis' vision. There are few quirky, odd moments to be found here which might disappoint some Coen fans. You also won't find beautiful majestic shots of Colorado landscape like in the 1969 version. Here the West is harder, less inviting and much more rugged in not particularly pretty areas of New Mexico and Texas.
The Coens do not manage to bring something we have never seen to the Western. They play it pretty straight. The film feels like a haunted homage to an era that is long gone. Roger Deakins' bleached out cinematography and the production designers' period details give the film a lost in time period detail but we don't forget we're watching a remake of a period peace. The slightly formal literal way the characters talk feels more like a stage play than a movie but makes for memorable exchanges like an early scene when young Mattie bargains with horse trader (Dakin Mathews) for her late father's money and property (which she'll need to hire Rooster) demonstrating the she can clearly hold her own in this very male Western world.
Matt Damon as the somewhat righteous, pompous Texas Ranger LaBoeuf is perfect in his role and his arguments and frustrations with Cogburn are more than just the silly farce of the Glen Campbell vs. John Wayne stuff in the earlier version. Josh Brolin's not quite right Tom Chaney outlaw is also perfectly played. There's never any doubt he's a no-account murderer. Also excellent is Barry Pepper who plays Lucky Ned Pepper, leader of the outlaw gang Chaney is a member of. And in one memorable scene Domhnall Gleeson as Moon(the Kid) and Paul Rae as Emmet are quite good. There are some sudden splashes of realistic gore that aren't for the faint of heart and Mattie's forced reserved reaction to the violence is appropriate and in line with her strong, trying to be tough as nails character.
It's really only during the final show-down that we miss John Wayne. As good as Bridge is everywhere else in this movie, we don't get the kind of big star Western hero high that we got from Wayne during the BIG scene. We don't really need it, though, because this is a far better movie on every level than Henry Hathaway's 1969 True Grit.
This True Grit is darker, grittier and gives us characters rather than cartoons, buffoons or icons. It's a talky story with a fairly slow pace. Jeff Bridges turns in an Oscar worthy performance full of nuance and depth, but the real surprise is the pitch perfect performance of young Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, who makes the Coen Brothers' True Grit a movie worth rushing to the theater to see.