Theatrical Review: Brace yourselves. The Coen Brothers’ 2010 version of True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges, Hallie Steinfeld, and Matt Damon, and full of the filmmakers’ usual deadpan humor and wry, sideways jabs at cynical sentimentality and jaded heroism, surpasses the 1969 John Wayne version.
We can argue ‘til the cows come home whether Jeff Bridges is better at playing Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne was. (I’ll say Bridges is better at playing the character, Wayne is better at playing the legend.) But this True Grit is simultaneously a fine film, a solid adaptation of Charles Portis’ tremendous 1968 novel, and best of all provides all kinds of cinematic enjoyment.
If you’ve somehow managed to walk this planet without seeing John Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1969 True Grit (or reading Portis’ highly recommended book), the plot is easily encapsulated: In the 1880s, determined 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) sets out from her home in Yell County, Arkansas, to find and bring to justice Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who shot her pa.
To that end she hires an aging, fat, drunken, blind-in-one-eye U.S. Marshal named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges) because she believes he has the “true grit” necessary to do the job. As they head into Indian Territory in pursuit of Chaney and the gang of thieves he’s fallen in with, Mattie and Rooster are joined by Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), whose braggadocio more than makes up for his questionable experience.
Portis’ novel sets out to find the hard grains of usually self-serving “heroism” at the heart of all the mythological hooey that’s gunked up over the Legends of the Wild West. Wayne’s version became more about The John Wayne Legend—and delightfully so. But the Coens, with their ironic detachment and distaste for unearned sentiment, get back to that rough, sardonic core of the novel.
The brothers also find Portis’ slang and idiom well-suited to their own love of language and words. Like last year’s Inglorious Basterds, much of this True Grit is more about talking than fighting—there’s Mattie’s fiercely funny bargaining over her father’s livestock, Cogburn trying to keep his story straight during courtroom cross examination, LaBeouf expounding (much to Rooster’s chagrin) on the qualities of the Rangers, and of course Rooster regaling Mattie with tales of his various wives.
Not that it’s all talk—True Grit ends up as one of the Coens’ most lively and heroic films (the climax is still heart-pounding terrific), while still humorously underscoring the personal selfishness behind most heroic acts. (It goes on the Coen shelf next to Miller’s Crossing as genre pieces that both subvert and embrace the type.) And as they did for Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men, the Coens have served Portis’ prose well, putting back into their film the sharper edges Wayne’s version sanded off.
Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne, but the point is neither is Rooster Cogburn. Bridges’ Cogburn, with his broken bassoon growl, is meaner, more ornery, and less obviously competent—and he’s also, rightfully, not the star of the show. It’s Mattie’s story (of course, she’s the one with the true grit), and Steinfeld rises to the occasion without coming off precious or precocious.
Damon’s LaBeouf, all posturing buckskin and spurs, nicely rounds out the trio. And Brolin and Barry Pepper show up later doing nicely fleshed-out work as Chaney and Lucky Ned Peppers, the outlaw he’s thrown in with.
(The film’s other stars are Coen regulars Roger Deakins–whose usual beautiful cinematography stuns without strutting–and Carter Burwell, whose score majestically riffs on the melancholy hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”)
The Coens balance Portis’ humor and adventure, but also his bittersweet sense (filtered through Mattie’s stern religious standards) that people are never as noble as they and their biographers would have you believe, and events never unfold quite according to myth. That in the end, “time just gets away from us,” diminishing our earthly bodies to dust and leaving behind only legends.
The Coens and their actors infuse that Unforgiven-esque message with entertaining performances and typically flawless storytelling, making this True Grit one of those rare, masterful films that’s as enriching as it is entertaining. And that makes it one of the best films of the year.