Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images, 110 minutes
Affecting, understated “True Grit” the real deal
If you’re one of those who think it’s downright heresy to remake a John Wayne film should take a gander at the superb Coen Brothers remake of “True Grit,” which sticks closer to Charles Portis’ gritty novel and is in many ways better than the 1969 film that won Wayne an Oscar and created an iconic character that he’s best known for. This “True Grit” is a slow-moving, well-acted and tense Old Western drama that shoots and ends up a winner.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a determined 14-year old girl, out to avenge the cold-blooded murder of her father Frank Ross by low-level thief Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who’s been riding with a gang of bad guys led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Mattie manages to rustle up the cash to hire a crusty, alcoholic U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track Chaney down. Along for the ride is Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who has his own reasons for tracking down Chaney.
“True Grit” is more authentic Western than the original film from the Coen Brothers, who direct and write as if they’ve been making Westerns for years (“No Country For Old Men” was sort a contemporary Western, sort of). This version is less remake than just another version of the novel, which the film adapts more faithfully. As in the novel, the film is told mainly from the viewpoint of Mattie, the young girl and central protagonist. She hires Cogburn for his “true grit” though in fact she’s the one who possesses the character needed to pull off something like this.
Because of the change in focus, the highlight of “True Grit” isn’t the hammy performance from Bridges, who literally has big boots to fill (more on that later), but the determined, confident performance from young newcomer Steinfeld, who is the real heart of the film and miles ahead of the annoying Kim Darby in the 1969 film. She takes the film from veterans Bridges and Damon and stands her ground in one of the year’s breakthrough performances (the scene in which she smooth talks a businessman is one of the film’s highlights). Fortunately, Bridges, in another stellar but flashy performance, doesn’t impersonate Wayne and gives the character more levity than Wayne’s didn’t have. Damon is also good in a low-key part and who’ll make you easily forget Glen Campbell, playing well off of Bridges’ larger-than-life presence.
The film drags some in the later going and misses a few beats here and there (Brolin is misused in a tiny part, a couple of small, bizarre Coen touches don’t fit and the climax is a bit anti-climactic given the premise), but overall this “True Grit” works better than the original, though it’s still not as rough and violent as it could’ve been. The Coen’s certainly don’t channel Eastwood’s reverent, elegiac “Unforgiven” in tone, but they still deliver an affecting, understated dramatic film that seems more drama than Western but works due in large part to Steinfeld’s layered performance that’s sure to garner accolades and attention.
The entertaining “True Grit” is a few notches better than the original film and is worth seeing this holiday season.