Does anyone in 19th century Texas speak English?
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Hailee Steinfeld. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Based on the novel “True Grit” by Charles Portis.
NOTE: The following review is based solely on the current film by the Coen Bros. I have made no comparisons with the original John Wayne version nor the novel.
The 2000's (or Aughts) saw the resurgence of the Western. Following films such as “American Outlaws,” and “Open Range,” newer fare such as “Seraphim Falls,” “The Proposition,” “Appaloosa,” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” as well as the HBO TV series, “Deadwood,” made it clear to Hollywood that the Western movie was all but dead. With the Studio system setting their sights on remaking just about anything and everything that ever made money certain contemporary “classics” have been tapped for a second go 'round. Of note the Russell Crowe and Christian Bale “3:10 to Yuma.” Now we are presented with yet another iconic Western movie, “True Grit,” that starred the epitome of Old West cowboy actors John Wayne remade this time with Jeff Bridges filling the Duke's shoes.
For those who don't know the story: Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) arrives in the town of Fort Smith with a black escort so she can claim the body of her father who was shot and left for dead by a man named Tom Chaney (Brolin). The death of her father was so inconsequential that according to the voice-over narration, “He could've walked to his horse” and strolled out of town. No one was coming after him. Angered, distraught, and hell-bent for vengeance she talks with the local town sheriff who tells her that Chaney is at the end of a long list of guys wanted or currently being pursued by Federal marshals. She asks for advice on who she can get to track him which leads to “Rooster” Cogburn.
In the meantime Mattie shows off who she is: a determined, hyper-educated girl who will stop at nothing to get her way. Not evil, mind you, but she's someone who will lay down the law, tell you about her lawyer connections, and offer you a way out in such a way that it's just easier to make her happy than deal with the consequences. For example, she sells back horses her dad bought to a man who had no plans of taking them back but Mattie overtalks him into complacency. Later on she talks her way into sleeping at various places for free.
Enter Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges). He's a washed-up Federal marshal living in a small shack behind a Chinese place. His past is as questionable as his future being that he's alcoholic and has an eye patch. After listening to him give testimony on an event that he couldn't remember Mattie interjects into his life (“you have true grit”) and hires him to go after her father's killer seeing as no one else will. Rooster waves off the idea leaving her to regroup and rethink.
Upon returning to a hotel that she's hoping to stay another night in she's met by Federal marshal LaBoeuf (Damon, who seems to be channeling Lee Van Cleef). LaBoeuf is everything that Cogburn isn't: clean, approachable, and works within the lines of the law. He's a dedicated former Texas Ranger sent by Mattie's mom to return her as well as commissioned by the state of Texas to retrieve Tom Chaney for the death of a Senator. LaBeef tells Mattie to go back home to Yale County so he can capture Chaney and have him tried in Texas where he'll get a big reward. Mattie isn't happy with that because she wants to see the guy hanged in Arkansas, not Texas.
It goes without saying that Cogburn and LaBoeuf team up to split the Texas money and leave Mattie behind. What they don't count on is her determination to see her father's killer punished by hanging in Yale County. After catching up she stays with Cogburn on what becomes a “road movie” Western – a tale more about the characters inner changes than what happens when they get to their destination. In a sense it's more about Cogburn finding a kind of “redemption” through helping a 14-year-old girl track down her father's killer and how the girl goes through a “culture shock” of learning how to live in the “wild” West.
So, how does the movie fare? I would like to watch it again. This is not a movie that changes the face of cinema nor is it the be-all end-all; this is the Coen brothers giving us a “period piece” based on the actual novel (as opposed to just remaking the original film) and it works. It's about as authentic a Western as I've seen since “Deadwood.” The characters are gritty at best and no one seems to speak without their own slant on the language (which sometimes can be distracting but otherwise makes the film). The story is more concerned about telling a tale of vengeance, redemption, and the growth of characters without being preachy about it or placating to formula.
Which brings me to a point of interest: this had to come from a day and age in which the ideas in this story were opposite what was selling. A 14-year-old girl teaming up with a washed-up, one-eyed marshal and the “by the book” marshal in order to track down her father's killer who happens to be not at the top of the bad guy list but at the bottom making her father's death seem senseless? These ideas go against Western formula or even the formula for good action movies (what if a James Bond nemesis was actually some geeky kid in a dorm room? Not so interesting...) but it works and the story is better for it.
Overall what works for the film is the film itself. The sets, shots, language, props, locations, etc. all feel authentic. To their credit Roger Deakins returns to do the cinematography on this one; his previous work with them being another “Western” of sorts - “No Country For Old Men”). While Bridges and Damon do good jobs, and Brolin is passable, the real star in the movie is Hailee Steinfeld, the girl whose story is unfolded on the screen. She carries the movie well.
My grade: B+