Jeff Bridges is Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed, often drunk, and trigger-happy U.S. Marshal in the Old West in this remake of “True Grit” from the Brothers Coen. Bridges takes over the role from John Wayne, who won an Oscar while wearing the eyepatch and would play the character one more time in a sequel. I suspect there won’t be a sequel to this remake, as it’s somewhat of a grim and melancholy affair that doesn’t really lend itself to repeat viewing. The film purports to stay much truer to the Charles Portis novel from which both movies are based, with more of a focus on the young female lead who narrates the movie, though honestly, aside from a new scene here or there, I didn’t really see much difference in terms of cinematic “perspective”.
When her father is gunned down by hapless bad man Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a murderous no-good ranch hand with a string of crimes to his nefarious name, 14-year old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) heads over to Fort Smith to seek justice. She quickly settles her murdered father’s affairs, wrangles some cash from a local merchant, and hires on the services of the drunken Rooster Cogburn, a man she is told has “true grit”. And Cogburn does indeed have grit, if by “grit” you mean a trigger happy finger. Mattie also runs across earnest Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has been pursuing Chaney for months now for crimes in Texas, though so far has remained behind the criminal. Against Mattie’s wishes, Cogburn and LaBoeuf team up to bring in Chaney (and, of course, share the reward), though given the two men’s very diverse backgrounds and methods of doing things, that partnership will be sorely tested in the coming days of the hunt.
If you’ve seen the 1969 original by Henry Hathaway, the 2010 version will look very familiar. Although the Coens claim that their movie is the more faithful version of Portis’ novel (and indeed, there are some major differences in terms of who lives and dies, plus some additional scenes – no man in a bear costume in the original, for instance), but 90% of the films are pretty much identical. The great lines from the John Wayne version remain in the remake, and though Jeff Bridges makes for one hell of a surly, capable lawman, he doesn’t actually trump Wayne’s portrayal. Wayne’s Cogburn is much more endearing, whereas Bridges seems to be taking a harder approach to the character. I hasten to say which one is better, since considered within the confines of their respective films, they are both appropriate.
One thing that stands out, though: the Coens’ “True Grit” is a much more melancholy affair, which may just be the result of the different eras when the two films were made. The LaBoeuf character gets a major makeover in the 2010 version, with Damon’s Texas Ranger looking nothing like the happy-go lucky fellow played by Glen Campbell in the original. Damon is actually quite good, easily losing himself in the jingling spurs and steadfastness of his Texan. Young Hailee Steinfeld, in her first major film role, is endearing as the precocious and spunky Mattie Ross, and I predict great things for the lass. Kids weaned on MTV will find the film’s dialogue no doubt something of a shock. Everyone in the movie, as with the original, uses proper English (they “cannot”, “will not”, and “do not”, for instance), which gives “True Grit” something of a throwback feel that is probably unlike anything in theaters right now. “Jersey Shore” and daily E! Channel viewers will certainly be baffled.
One thing that doesn’t change, though, is the brief appearances of the bad guys about halfway into the film, before they return for a final engagement in Act Three, when Cogburn, Mattie, and LaBoeuf finally catches up to their prey. Chaney, it turns out, has thrown in with the deadly Lucky Ned Pepper, played by a deliciously mean, though strangely honorable (and appropriately named) Barry Pepper. The film features some pretty harsh violence, including a deadly encounter in a winter cabin, with quite the body count falling by the wayside (and left in the cold) along the way. “True Grit” is never gratuitously violent, though violence is accepted as a way of life that cannot be avoided.
In a lot of ways, the “True Grit” movies are products of their time. With a John Wayne in the lead, you can only get so grim and gritty before it ceases to become a John Wayne movie. The 2010 version is exactly the kind of Western you expect to find nowadays – it’s starker in its violence, has less time for rainbows and leprechauns, and is generally a darker affair. John Wayne will always be Rooster Cogburn, but if you were looking for a replacement, you could certainly do worst than Jeff Bridges. I don’t think the 2010 “True Grit” can ever trump the 1969 version, but it’s certainly an interesting companion piece.
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (director) / Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (screenplay), Charles Portis (novel)
CAST: Jeff Bridges … Rooster Cogburn
Hailee Steinfeld … Mattie Ross
Matt Damon … LaBoeuf
Josh Brolin … Tom Chaney
Barry Pepper … Lucky Ned Pepper
Dakin Matthews … Col. Stonehill
Paul Rae … Emmett Quincy