The original True Grit may be known for giving actor John Wayne his first and only Oscar but in truth it’s a rather mediocre movie and pales next to Wayne’s collaborations with John Ford. The movie skews the story in favor of Wayne’s character Rooster Cogburn, who is more or less the same role Wayne has done through the rest of his career, as well as playing off typical conventions and clichés of the genre. Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit is not as much as a remake of the 1969 film as it is a re-adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel. Much like No Country For Old Men, True Grit is faithful to the novel and yet still has a true Coen brothers feel, full of the exuberant spirit the directors put in their pictures.
The center of True Grit is Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), a young teenager whose father had been killed by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who runs off with a gang led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Hungry for revenge, Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a tired old and ornery bounty hunter, to track down Chaney. While Cogburn may be lazy, Mattie believes he is effective and has “true grit.” The two soon venture off in the old west to catch the killer, along with Texas Ranger LeBouef (Matt Damon), who wants to find Chaney to try him for the assassination of a Texan senator.
Whereas the 1969 version reveled in the glories and fantasies of westerns, the Coen’s True Grit conveys the harsh reality of that type of life. Mattie and Cogburn trek from expansive deserts to desolate forests and struggle in the tough weather, perfected by Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography. True Grit has the same approach to its subject matter the Coens also took for their masterful No Country For Old Men. In both movies, Joel and Ethan Coen express their interest in the battle between good and bad, a conflict that never appears to yield a winner. The Coens believe that evilness is ambiguous and never pertains to a single thing (as evidenced by the open-note conclusion of No Country For Old Men) and True Grit sticks to the same tone. The times may be different, but True Grit bears much resemblance to No Country For Old Men as if it took place one hundred years earlier. There are also similarities between the picture and Fargo, with Steinfeld resembling the brave female protagonist Marge Gunderson, and The Big Lebowski through Jeff Bridge’s portrayal of Rooster Cogburn while also echoing his role in Crazy Heart. Their performances are key to the film’s success and humanize the material, the major weakness of the 1969 movie. Bridges is in top form as Cogburn and Steinfeld is fantastic as Mattie (she was submitted for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars because she would be more likely to win, but it’s very much a starring role).
Reflecting on the past crimes and injustices that reigned in the old west, the Coens tear down many of the boundaries the often cramp the genre and make one of their most solidly entertaining and tight pictures. It’s a magnificent modern day epic that restructures many of the themes of The Searchers for a modern day audience. Westerns have rarely been this satisfying.