The 1969 version of True Grit is a movie classic, and John Wayne’s performance as U.S. Marshall Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn won him the only Academy Award of his career. Or so the story goes, anyway. I recently went back to watch that movie again, and the reality doesn’t quite live up to the hype. It’s pretty much the same as all of Wayne’s other late-career ’60s-era westerns. He might be a little rougher than in most of his roles, but he’s far from “gritty”, so to speak.
It’s possible that the problem was basically in the way most movies were made in that era, and that audiences of the day wouldn’t have reacted well to a truly flawed hero, especially when John Wayne had built a career out of playing total white-hat characters. So there might be something worthwhile that could come from a modern return to Charles Portis’ novel. And that’s where Joel and Ethan Coen come in, with their version of True Grit.
Mattie Ross (complete ingenue Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas looking for a United States Marshal. She explains that she’s looking for her father’s hired hand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who shot her father and lit out for the Cherokee territory across the river. She finds Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a hard-drinking former Confederate guerilla. He catches her interest because of his “true grit” — always bringing in his quarry, as often dead as alive.
But Ross isn’t the only one on Chaney’s trail. Before working for her father — and under the name Theron Chelmsford — Chaney killed a Texas state senator, which has put him in the sights of La Boeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger and former Northern Virginia regular. He knows better how his quarry behaves, while Cogburn better knows the land and the Ned Pepper gang Chaney is hiding with. And so this unlikely trio set out into the territories.
The Coen brothers are known for making movies that start at quirky and go from there. And in that sense, True Grit is not a Coen brothers movie; this is a solidly-produced western movie. It may not bring some slanted Coen angle to the screen, but it brings all of their skill and craft to bear on turning this story into a film the way it should be done.
Bridges, Damon, and Brolin all respond with excellent performances. Brolin, in particular, disappears into Chaney in a way I haven’t seen him pull off before. He’s not around all that much, but he owns every scene he’s in. Damon, of course, does a fine job as La Boeuf, where Glen Campbell spent more of his screen time trying to look like a matinee idol.
As for Cogburn, Bridges is the actor who can play the film’s role instead of his own — a task Wayne simply was not cut out for. Cogburn comes alive as a rough, determined, funny, and sad character. He’s a self-described fat old man, given to believing — maybe with good reason — that his best days are behind him. He charges forward, but it’s never clear if it’s because of some inherent bravery, or because he doesn’t think there’s anything left worth saving himself for.
But Mattie Ross is the center of this film, which is more in line with the original novel, and Steinfeld absolutely rises to the challenge. This version of Ross is far more nuanced than Kim Darby’s, who often seemed more like a love interest for La Boeuf than a leading character in her own right.
This Ross is confident and whip-smart. She’s self-sufficient and surprisingly well-educated, although often more so from books than from any real understanding. She’s in over her head, more obviously now because she actually feels like she’s fourteen instead of in her early twenties. But this time it’s not the benevolence of Cogburn and La Boeuf that keeps her afloat, it’s her own headstrong, youthful idealism. It’s her own true grit, which is how it always should have been.
Worth it: definitely.
Bechdel test: fail.