Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld takes the central role of Mattie in the Coens’ new adaptation of the classic Charles Portis novel True Grit, as a young girl searching for her father’s killers. Jeff Bridges gets the eye-catching role (ouch) of Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, aged gun-hand, and Matt Damon plays the dandy Texas Ranger LaBeouf, dragged along with Rooster in Maddie’s quest.
Despite the brilliance of the novel, most people will be viewing the movie in light of the 1969 Henry Hathaway adaptation which won John Wayne his only Oscar, and seeing how Bridges measures up. (To be honest, I feel that John Wayne has done more damage than good to the reputation of the western. This is a little unfair, as Wayne was perfect for as lot of his roles, defining an entire era of the genre, and later on using his archetype to make deliberate contrasting points. However the two became so closely aligned that his limitations have become viewed as those of the entire genre).
The good news is that Bridges makes the part his own by staying close to the novel’s original description, and in fact this is the path taken by the Coens for the movie as a whole. Steinfeld is essential to the movie’s success, and thankfully she seem to be a real discovery, easily out-acting Kim Darby in the original. Similarly, Matt Damon turns in one of his best performances, and isn’t afraid to send himself up as a man with an inflated view of his own achievements.
As with all movies by the Coen brothers, True Grit treads a fine line between making a serious genre movie, and parodying that genre of movie. Here they retain a lot of the novel’s sly and witty dialogue, which was lost a bit in the broader humour of the earlier adapatation, and their love of wordplay is perfectly aligned with Portis’ sensibilities. The Victorian-era dialogue is used not just for comic effect but to remind us of the precise era in history, in a similar way to Deadwood or The Assassination of Jesse James (which shares cinematographer Roger Deakins with this movie).
postit What really makes this movie great is the sincerity and sense of history, the characters feel like real people and we feel for them, in a way that doesn’t always happen in the Coens other movies. Even the bad guys, led by an under-used Josh Brolin, have the necessary menace unrelieved by any comedy traits. Barry Pepper turns in a great performance as Ned Pepper (easy casting there), even managing to outdo Robert Duvall’s performance in the original. Over the length of the movie, Bridges manages to turn a slapstick caricature into a heroic figure, and Steinfeld plays Mattie without any irony, giving a sense of how tough she has to be to survive in such a harsh world. You believe her when she says “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God”, and the movie takes this line as its motto. The last word goes to Carter Burwell, who has turned out marvellous scores for the Coens right back to Blood Simple, and once again comes up with the goods.
So forget the 1969 version and enjoy this as a great version of a great novel.
- “True Grit” (2010) or “No Country for Young Girls” (markewilk.wordpress.com)
- Movie Review No.49: True Grit (2010) (filmdump.wordpress.com)
- True Grit (themoviereport.net)
- True Grit (thesefilmsarelinked.cabinpressure.co.uk)