True Grit

cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper

directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

106 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Paramount DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Jim Steel

True Grit

The past is another country, and this tale of an old man noticeably benefits from the Coens’ occasionally cold-blooded directing technique. These characters go about their business in a manner that is alien to our century and the pacing pushes the viewer into another place. There is time to look at the surroundings and this strange, compelling western feels much longer than it actually is, not because the pace drags but because you’ve become immersed in its world. It’s a rare feat.

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This True Grit is billed not as a remake of the 1969 film but as a fresh version of Charles Portis’ original novel, but, not having read the 1 968 novel, I can’t possibly comment on the Coens’ veracity. However, it does map surprisingly well onto the earlier film and one must therefore assume that both films are relatively faithful adaptations, although the Coens’ film is more so than the Henry Hathaway version. One quirk that must have played an unquantifiable part is the realisation that, with the possible exception of the excellent Hailee Steinfeld (playing Mattie Ross), there can’t have been anyone connected with this production who hasn’t seen the earlier movie. It was, and remains, a fine film.

The plot is a straightforward revenge/ coming-of-age number which, for any Martians out there, goes like this: 14-year-old Mattie Ross wants revenge for her father who was murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), so she hires the brutal Marshal Rooster Cockburn (Jeff Bridges) to track Chaney down. They are joined by a Texas Ranger, La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who is also after Chaney. Chaney has fled beyond the law into Indian Territory, and has joined up with Ned Pepper’s gang. Ned Pepper, played with tidy synchronicity by Barry Pepper, is one of the few examples where the first film was better cast. Barry Pepper is good in this role, but Robert Duvall edges him.

The endings of the two films diverge, and the older Mattie’s framing narrative in the Coens’ film is taken from the novel, adding a further depth to the film – for it is her story. In Hathaway’s film you are watching Rooster’s story. And, let’s face it; Rooster is basically John Wayne playing John Wayne. Mattie, in the 1969 version, is played by the 21-year-old Kim Darby in a manner that makes Judy Garland’s Dorothy look Oscar-worthy. Glen Campbell (as La Boeuf), although not quite as bad as he was sometimes made out to be, was really just another in a line of pop stars who were stitched to the ageing Wayne for added teen-appeal. Remember Ricky Nelson? Fabian? But enough of Hathaway and Wayne; this is not their review.

The dialogue in the 2010 film is mumbled and archaic, especially from Bridges’ alcoholic character, and many will miss much of what is said first time through. The story has a steady momentum of its own which merely turns any missed gems into Easter eggs for the next viewing. Bridges is a living monument to great acting these days and has somehow quietly sneaked up on all of us. Didn’t he used to be slightly annoying back in the 1970s? The Coens will probably take some of the credit for that as well since The Big Lebowski may have been what started it all moving for him.

Matt Damon’s character is a bit of a dandy but he fades when next to Rooster who is, of course, the real thing. There is no real chemistry between the three main characters and nor should there have been. The pleasure comes in watching them bumping against each other with their sharp edges. Rooster mumbles out his backstory but that’s for our benefit as the other two have no interest in it. Chaney is the other standout here, and Brolin gives him a real plausibility. Hey, you’d have given him a job just like Mattie’s father did if he decided to turn on the charm. You can also see the killer inside him.

The minor characters also provide meaty parts and there’s toughness in all of them, whether it be the landlady of the boarding house where Mr Ross was staying or the undertaker who agrees to let Mattie sleep in his workshop since it doesn’t occur to him to put the girl up in his own home. It all points to why Mattie herself has the inner strength to do what she does. Nobody flinches at the hangings, and violent death is taken for granted. The ugliness of the time is also demonstrated in a couple of dry jokes about race. Viewers will laugh despite themselves but the characters, very much the creatures of their time, are oblivious to them. In fairness to the people, there is plenty of kindness and decency underneath all the filth.

As was mentioned earlier, the film is framed by the narration of the 40-year-old Mattie (Elizabeth Marvel) and it is quite clear that the events of the film were the high-points of her life. There is an almost unbearable poignancy to this, and a coda that demonstrates that, for the characters, life has to carry on after the drama stops.

The Coens have been circling the western genre for most of their careers but when, with typical contrariness, they picked True Grit as their first full foray, they managed to dull expectations. However, even their failures are interesting and this is one of their finest films. It is also, remarkably, one of the best westerns ever made.

The DVD disc of this twin disc set merely contains the DVD and digital edition and all of the extras are on the blu-ray disc. As well as the film, you get a feature on recreating the town of Fort Worth; interviews with the cast; a feature on the cinematography; a documentary about Charles Portis; and the cinema trailer.