The Coen brother are back, and this time to tackle the story of a little girl and her search for justice in their remake of what was arguably the last of the great John Wayne movies, True Grit. The film follows Mattie, played Hailee Steinfeld, who, after her father’s murder sets out to find his killer and bring him to justice. The story begins with Mattie descending on the town where the murder took place, sweeping it with her young woman gusto as she makes arrangements for her father’s burial and sets out to find the right man to hunt her father’s killer. Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn played by Jeff Bridges, is that right man, the only bounty hunter in town with enough of what it takes (by Mattie’s estimation) to ensure the killer’s capture. Josh Brolin plays Tom Chaney, the elusive murderer who killed Mattie’s dad and Matt Damon appears early on abruptly as LaBoeuf, a somewhat effete and bumbling Texas Ranger, who’s also hunting Chaney for a bounty stemming from a different crime. Most of the film revolves around the hunt across Indian Territory in which we get to know Cogburn, a drunken lout of man who just happens to have the aim and bravery it will take to get the job done, as well as Mattie and LaBeouf. In Mattie, Cogburn finds a kind ear, who’ll listen to him natter on about his ex wives and the child he alienated, and in Cogburn, Mattie finds a father figure, if not a romantic interest. One of those truthful details about this film, is that they don’t shy away from the fact that women, even as young as Mattie were sexualized in the days of the old west. LaBoeuf, seems to also hold a bit of a candle for Mattie and the hunt for Chaney at times turns into a pissing contest between the two opposites of Cogburn and LaBoeuf. When we eventually meet Chaney, we see Josh Brolin playing a character who feels oddly reminiscent of his portrayal of George W Bush in W, just a slightly more cartoony old west version. Chaney turns out to be part of gang of thieves led by Lucky Ned who’s expertly portrayed by Barry Pepper. Pepper’s character is a perfect example of one of the Coen’s conflicted villains, willing to kill a fourteen year old girl one minute, and making sure that she is comfortable and safe the next. It’s this ability to portray real, human characters juxtaposed with the almost hard-boiled genre-ized backdrop of the film, that makes for such a well executed feat. The hunt, which makes up the lion’s share of the film amounted to an adventure that evoked in me a real sense of pathos. I found myself quickly caught up in the journey and was quite surprised.
The other major component of the film is the beginning in which Mattie takes care of her dead father;s business. Steinfeld perhaps deserves the most recognition of her portrayal in this film, as her hard facade and youthful insecurities are so well illustrated throughout — especially early in the film. She stomps around town demanding that her father be properly buried and sells her father’s property, always touting her “good lawyer” upon any resistance. This part of the film also truly to displays how charming the Coens attention to setting can be. None of our heroes or villains are too pretty and their teeth are rotten in accordance with the times. A scene early in the movie portrays a public hanging for the entertainment of the blood thirsty towns people where the condemned get a moment to profess their last words. The moment is brutal, ugly and honest; and because of that, it’s also funny.
True Grit may be a remake of a John Wayne western, but many claim that the Coen’s remake is more true to the novel, which is said to read like a Coen brothers script itself. What makes this film worth re-making, is that the Coen’s didn’t really make a Western here, they told a compelling story with a well established backdrop. Most importantly, they did something that was nearly impossible in 1969, in keeping the all of the nasty bits within the story alive, well and burnish free.