Joel and Ethan Coen often utilise western conventions for their movies, but 2010’s True Grit is the brothers’ first attempt at crafting a true, old-fashioned western. While based on a novel by Charles Portis, True Grit is most likely best known as a John Wayne western vehicle from 1969; the film which earned The Duke his one and only Academy Award. However, the Coens Brothers’ True Grit is touted as less of a remake and more of a closer adaptation of the source material, though both films are still the same story with the same basic story beats and a lot of the same dialogue. True Grit is definitely a well-made, compelling motion picture at surface level, but it nonetheless remains somewhat of a disappointment. The Coens are renowned for slyly expanding upon and subverting each genre they tackle, but True Grit is merely a rote western that lacks the touches we’ve come to expect from the talented brothers.
Set in the 19th Century, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) learns of the cold-blooded murder of her father at the hands of outlaw Tom Chaney (Brolin) and vows to seek retribution. Upon hearing that Chaney has fled into Indian territory and is low priority for the understaffed U.S. Marshalls, the determined young Mattie offers payment to the grizzled Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) – who is said to have “true grit” – if he helps her to bring her father’s killer to justice. An aging, fat one-eyed alcoholic of dubious morals, Rooster hesitantly agrees to Mattie’s proposal, and they set off to hunt Chaney. Accompanying the pair is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Damon), who’s equally determined to catch Chaney as he wants to fetch the massive Texan reward on the outlaw’s head.
Unless you had prior knowledge of the Coens’ involvement, you would not have guessed that they wrote and directed True Grit. The brothers’ best movies are intelligent, multifaceted works, skilfully mixing an array of genres and engaging the brain. But 2010’s True Grit is too linear and basic. One would expect the Coens to do something new and exciting with the source material, and rework it in their trademark way. Instead, the Coens just went mainstream, which is further exemplified in the tame PG-13 rating, the fact that the brothers considered it to be a family movie, and the fact that the movie was a tremendous box office hit (it became the first Coen Brothers flick to gross over $100 million domestically). Curiously, the film is not entirely faithful to the source, as they streamlined Portis’ novel. For instance, there’s no sign of Rooster’s cat, and a scene of Rooster shooting a rat has been excised (wouldn’t that have appealed to the Coens’ brand of dark humour?). This begs the question: why promote the film as a faithful cinematic rendering of the book if things have been changed? And if the Coens were going to change a few things anyway, why didn’t they go the whole hog and put a new creative spin on the story?
Still, from a visual and entertainment standpoint, True Grit is close to perfection. Roger Deakins’ Oscar-nominated cinematography is masterful and evocative, Carter Burwell’s music is hauntingly beautiful, and the production values are faultless. The locations and towns do not feel like sets – they feel lived-in and authentic. And while the pacing is not always spot-on, the film has plenty of truly memorable moments, including a hilarious early scene in which Mattie negotiates money for her father’s horse, and a rather amusing scene of Rooster being questioned in court. And that’s not counting the electrifying shootouts, though at times these sequences appear to be pulling punches to secure a PG-13 rating. One gets the sense that a more full-blooded R-rated picture like 3:10 to Yuma or The Proposition would’ve been more suitable for the Coens’ gritty approach.
Perhaps the film’s biggest hindrance is that its emotional punch is too subdued. One can sense the peril that the characters face, but it’s hard to feel it emotionally, thus sapping power from the story. True Grit is therefore a film in which we appreciate the journey but cannot feel as if we are on the lam alongside the protagonists. And the ending is a bit weak – true to the book, sure, but the 1969 version had a more satisfying ending, solidifying the fact that changing things for a film adaptation is sometimes better than sticking to the source. Additionally, the Coens are often able to generate black comedy through grim situations (which is ideally suited to the western genre), but this talent eluded the brothers here.
Another hole in the “faithful adaptation of the novel” angle is the casting of Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. Rooster was in his 40s in the novel, but Bridges was 60 when the picture was lensed. (For the record, John Wayne was 62 when he portrayed the role.) Nevertheless, Bridges’ interpretation of the role is terrific. Wisely, he did not try to ape The Duke – instead, Bridges made the role his own, bringing Cogburn Revisited to life with a solid, gritty performance that earned him an Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is a great find as Mattie Ross. The young actress – who was a tender 13 years of age during filming – received an Oscar nomination for her performance, and it is not hard to see why. Matt Damon is equally strong as LaBoeuf, one-upping Glen Campbell’s portrayal of the role from 40 years ago with an excellently nuanced piece of acting. Rounding out the main players is Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney, and a sinister, effective Barry Pepper playing Ned Pepper (no, that’s not a typo…).
True Grit remains an entertaining remake of a John Wayne classic that didn’t really need to be remade in the first place, but one gets the sense that two highly talented filmmakers have wasted their time to make a film that’s below their gifts. Okay, so the Coens set out to make a straightforward western, and they’ve done well in this respect. But in this reviewer’s eyes, it’s just not enough considering what the brothers are normally capable of.