“True Grit” Truer, Grittier Than the Original
By Skip Sheffield
John Wayne is so indelibly attached to the comic Western “True Grit” it seems audacious anyone would have the nerve to remake it.
The Coen brothers have never shrunk from a challenge. They went back to the original source material, the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, to reinterpret the yarn of spunky young Arkansas pioneer Mattie Ross, and the fat, aging, one-eyed, alcoholic bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn to avenge the death of her father.
The 2010 Mattie, played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, is tougher, less girlish and altogether more convincing than Kim Darby was more than 40 years ago.
The spotlight is more on Mattie this time around, and deservedly so. She is filled with righteous anger over the murder of her father by the sneaky, cowardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).
The name Cheney has new meaning for this generation, and Josh Brolin sees fit to make his blackguard as reprehensible as possible.
Perhaps because of his Oscar win last year for “Crazy Heart,” Jeff Bridges is relaxed, confident, without shame and very generous to his young co-star as a younger, less spotlight-hogging Rooster Cogburn.
“I intend to kill Tom Cheney with it,” Mattie states to the man she buys a pistol from. Then she bargains to buy back the horse that was stolen from her feather.
When she approaches Rooster Cogburn (she heard he had “true grit”), he looks at her skeptically and demands $100 to undertake the search. He promptly leaves without her.
Mattie cements her determination by fording and swimming a rushing river to chase after Rooster, who has been joined by another bounty hunter, Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, barely recognizable), who wants the price on Cheney’s head.
This ragged trio takes off across the vast badlands, beautifully photographed by Joel and Ethan Coen’s favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins.
They meet a catalog of typical Western characters along the way, during which a form of protective parental mode develops in the previously irresponsible Rooster. He still drinks and slouches in the saddle, but this Rooster is no buffoon. Despite all his faults he does indeed possess true grit. So does Mattie.
John Wayne received his Academy Award more for his body of work than his role as Rooster Cogburn. I remember scratching my head at the time and thinking what they say about Academy Awards is true: they don’t always go to the most deserving party.
The competition is too stiff for Jeff Bridges to win a second consecutive Oscar, but odds are better than even that young Miss Steinfeld will be remembered at nomination time.