Some interesting moral dilemmas arise in True Grit. Is it wrong to steal from a thief? Can retribution be found in the death of a murderer? Justice? Or merely punishment?
That’s not to say these questions weren’t proposed by the original 1969 adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. While many have called this new version of True Grit, written and directed by the Coen Brothers, a “re-imagining” or a “fresh adaptation” of the novel, it simply doesn’t deviate from the previous edition enough for me to call it anything but a “remake,” even if it serves as an upgrade in every conceivable way to the film that won John Wayne his only Academy Award.
In the no-brainer casting move of the year, Jeff Bridges dons the eyepatch as Rooster Cogburn, the role made famous by the Duke, with impeccable comic timing as the perpetually inebriated U.S. Marshall. Matt Damon fares much better than the abysmal Glen Campbell as the dopey Laboeuf (that’s pronounced “La Beef”), but the real wild card here is 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the savvy and persuasive Mattie Ross.
Despite the fact she’s been nominated for a SAG as a supporting actress, Mattie Ross gives the film its pulse and serves as its true lead. She seeks out the help of the nastiest Marshall around, a man with “true grit” to help her track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father. But it doesn’t take long before we realize she’s really the one with all the grit.
Mattie refuses to take no for an answer and quickly “earns her spurs,” as Laboeuf, who also has an interest in finding Chaney, puts it after she rides her little black pony across a river to chase down the boys who tried leaving her behind. She invested good money in the drunken old Marshall, and she’ll be damned if she doesn’t see this through.
The opening voiceover and an anticlimactic epilogue are exclusive to this version, but the filling is quite similar to the original. Hell, entire scenes of dialogue are often identical. In the role of outlaw gang leader Ned Pepper, Barry Pepper is a dead ringer for Robert Duvall, who previously filled Lucky Ned’s saddle.
Carter Burwell’s score, essentially a collection of old Bible hymns, gives this version a completely different mood, though it was probably made even more for me because I couldn’t get the voice of Robert Mitchum from The Night of the Hunter out of my head any time Burwell alluded to “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The cinematography by longtime Coen collaborator Roger Deakins is lush with gorgeous silhouettes and landscapes, the Coens’ trademark quips are ever present and Bridges and Steinfeld wonderfully make their roles their own.
Bridges is pitch perfect, playing Cogburn as far less coherent and far more libatious than the Duke. He turns damn near any phrase he chooses into a hilarious punchline with ease, while Steinfeld is far more commanding (and less girly, despite the pigtails) than Kim Darby, who was 21 when she inexplicably played Mattie without a sniff of a Southern accent in 1969.
But this all seems like familiar territory for the Coens. True Grit isn’t as dark and introspective as No Country for Old Men, nor as quirky as The Big Lebowski. It falls somewhere in between those films and comes across as a bit safe, especially after the deeply personal philosophical exploration that was their last picture, A Serious Man.
And for all the interesting questions that are proposed by the characters’ moral dilemmas, none of them are actually answered.
Here’s hoping their next effort will be more ambitious — but hey, at the very least we can say there’s a damn good western playing in theaters right now. We haven’t been able to say that since 3:10 to Yuma, coincidentally (or perhaps not) also a remake, opened more than three years ago.