Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, novel by Charles Portis
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Studio/Running Time: Paramount Pictures, 110 min.
They’ve done it again. Joel and Ethan Coen have once again taken on a revered film genre. And as with comedy (The Big Lebowski), epic poem: (O Brother, Where Art Thou?); crime drama (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Miller’s Crossing), they not only do the form justice; they actually improve upon it. In tackling the venerable Western, their choice couldn’t have been more daunting.
With True Grit, the Coens remake one of the better cowboy films of the 1960s, a film that influenced countless other films, including Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. They also take on the genre’s biggest star—John Wayne, who played the irascible marshal Rooster Cogburn in the original ‘69 adaptation of Charles Portis’ straightforward and engaging novel. Casting, however, has never been a Coen weakness, and Jeff Bridges wholly embraces and reinvents the role for which Wayne received an Oscar.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives to Fort Smith, Arkansas, supposedly just to bring back the body of her father, murdered by the now-fugitive Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). But the young, strong-willed Ross demands justice and enlists the services of Cogburn, paying the one-eyed alcoholic to find Chaney and bring him back to hang. An unlikely alliance is created when she stubbornly insists on coming along and Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon) joins in their pursuit. As Ross, the newcomer Steinfeld gives a performance worthy of many a seasoned actress and is already receiving award mentions for her supporting role, as is Bridges who interprets Cogburn at times as a buffoon but also as a true western hero. While drunk he engages the serious LaBeouf in a braggadocious shooting contest that eventually leads to LaBeouf’s exit from the group. Damon’s performance is a vast improvement over singer/non-actor Glen Campbell’s version in the original. LaBeouf strives to maintain an aura of self-assurance and bravery which Damon nails with his stilted delivery. Brolin’s pitiful, comical and dark appearance as Chaney is brief but wonderfully memorable.
There is a simplicity about the performances in True Grit that jives well with the rich landscapes and the authentically recreated, urban settings of nineteenth century Arkansas and the Indian Territory. That, and the genuine attire of the times, allows the Coens to create a world where the actors can play real characters, not caricatures of reality. It’s a talent that keeps begging the question, “What’s next?”