When it was announced that the Coen Brothers were remaking the film that garnered John Wayne his only Academy Award and the appreciation of even the most stout John Wayne haters, I was not surprised. Westerns are not unfamiliar territory for the brothers. While their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men” is easily identifiable as a modern Western, some of their most popular films are what can be described as Neo-Westerns. Both “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski” are most definitely Westerns, just not in the traditional sense and both share some principal themes explored in “True Grit”; their first straight forward traditional Western.
A combination remake of the 1969 film and a re-take on the Charles Portis novel, “True Grit” is the story of Mattie Ross. Mattie is a 14 year girl who recruits the help of the aged, drunken, unforgiving and weathered Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn to help hunt and capture or kill her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney, . Along with a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf, the three head into Indian territory to hunt Chaney who may have joined up with or was already done in by a gang led by Ned Pepper, with whom Cogburn has some unfinished business with. ”True Grit” is not the darker, bloodier, action packed remake that you might have in mind based on its trailer and I honestly felt a little disappointed at first when walking out of the theater. But the more I thought about it and really started to pick things apart, the better the film became.
Mattie’s independence, strong will and smarts are all amazing gifts that help her influence people to cater to her needs when it comes to exacting her revenge on Chaney. However, she is still only a 14-year-old girl. She is prepared to do anything and does not hesitate to act on her convictions, but she still does not understand what it truly takes to live the life the type of men in the story lead. In times of desperation and loss, you can’t dwell on what happened or what can happen next and that is what keeps these men alive. It somewhat mirrors a bit the idea of the animal Anton Chigur was in “No Country For Old Men.” It doesn’t matter that he is pure animalistic evil, because he knows what is ahead of him and what he needs to do next, he survives. But “True Grit” is not the story of a girl who loses her innocence, but one of a girl who never really had it. The film also explores another popular Coen Brothers theme; the death of the traditional Western hero. Funny that Cogburn here is played by Jeff Bridges as the last time he worked with the Coens, the same thematic ideals were the main central point of the film.
As much as the original “True Grit” will be remembered for John Wayne’s performance, the story really is that of Mattie Ross. Hailee Steinfeld owns this role. It is tough to ask a pretty much unknown young actress to carry such a big film and do it convincingly; and that is exactly what she does. Jeff Bridges is also wonderful of course, but that should not come as a surprise to anyone. Matt Damon is very effective in a dry, subdued roll. The big surprise for me is the performances from Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. Both have very little screen time but they shine in the short time they do have. Since working with the Coens, Josh Brolin has proved he is no fluke so it comes as no surprise he was able to do his job well. Pepper however, who happens to play a man named Pepper, not only was never very impressive to me, he seems to have almost slipped off the face of the earth. As the character of Ned Pepper he is dirty, sly, calculating and yet someone who I can feel a slight bit of empathy towards.
“True Grit” does deliver retribution, but when all is said and done, you will ask yourself, at what cost. No one is saying criminals should not be persecuted for their crimes, especially murder. But life in general is a series of events where you have to weigh your options. Simply put, having “True Grit” means knowing when it is time to act and time to choose a different path.