Against all odds
The Coen brothers’ adaptation of True Grit adapts an old movie in an old genre, and somehow remains fresh
The Coen brothers’ version of True Grit saunters through a lot of familiar territory—it’s a western, it’s a Coen brothers’ movie, and it restages a story already rendered memorably in Charles Portis’ original novel and in the 1969 film version with John Wayne (who won an Oscar for it).
With baggage like that, even the most well-endowed of productions could easily lose its way. But the 2010 True Grit has a quietly exhilarating freshness to it, even as it goes about the business of honoring the assorted facets of its somewhat peculiar pedigree.
The 1969 version sticks in the memory as the story of Rooster Cogburn, the character played then by John Wayne. The 2010 version has Jeff Bridges doing memorable work of his own in that role, but this time there’s no mistaking that True Grit is above all the story of Mattie Ross, the intrepid 14-year-old who hires Cogburn to help her track down the man who has just killed her father.
Hailee Steinfeld’s calm, perfectly credible intensity in the role of Mattie is one of the great and special delights in this new version. The Coens do great justice to Rooster’s heroics and to the action sequences that also loom large in the 1969 version, but their approach reaffirms the centrality of Mattie while also reviving the hybrid spirit of the original novel—part picaresque adventure, part Dickensian romance and period piece, part pilgrim’s progress.
That unlikely sounding partnership—Mattie’s precocious moral rigor and Rooster’s roguishly erratic heroism—is the central dramatic force in all this. But the casual meandering of the unfolding story is a matter of assorted episodes, in many of which Mattie must navigate urgent worldly concerns while also matching wits with an assortment of variously threatening adult male adversaries.
Because the Coens are especially attentive to the quaint and archaic lingo of Portis’ original characters, some of the best scenes in the film are almost entirely a matter of talk. Mattie is the most adept person, verbally and intellectually, amidst a small host of frontier types given to various degrees of old-fashioned oratorical rhetoric, and the Coens compound the pleasures therein via lively renderings in supporting roles both large and small.
Matt Damon is very good in the large role of the somewhat ostentatious Texas Ranger who joins forces with Rooster and Mattie. Josh Brolin has less screen time than his billing would suggest, but he’s quite effective as the flummoxed villain Tom Chaney. Barry Pepper, with lower billing, is superb as Lucky Ned Pepper, the most complex and intriguing character among the story’s outlaws.
A devious horse trader (Dakin Mathews) and a wandering mountain man/shaman (Ed Corbin) make indelible impressions in relatively small parts. A pontificating lawyer (Joe Stevens), a callow outlaw called Moon (Domhnall Gleeson), an elderly Cole Younger (Don Pirl), and a nameless stableboy (Orlando Smart) all have their distinctive moments as well.
Bridges’ Rooster is gruftier and more ramshackle than Wayne’s was, but no less powerful and moving. The key action sequences mix close-ups (for Mattie’s perspective) and long shots (for showdowns on horseback) to particularly haunting effect, culminating in the mythic splendor of Rooster’s starlit night ride to save Mattie.