Joel and Ethan, the mighty brothers Coen, take their masterful talents to the Old West for a bravura remake of True Grit. Jeff Bridges wears the eye patch in place of John Wayne as the iconic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, and this is as beautiful a piece of casting as you are going to witness in modern cinema.
As good as Bridges is in the role, delivering every line with a weary, somehow endearing mumble, he is matched every step of the way by 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, my pick for the year’s Best Supporting Actress. As Mattie Ross, the whip-smart young woman who hires Cogburn to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father, Steinfeld is nothing short of miraculous.
When Rooster and Mattie set out on the trail of Chaney, they are joined by Texas lawman LeBoeuf (Matt Damon). While the film certainly is no comedy, Damon gets a lot of laughs as the tag-along who talks too much, leaving the party more than once due to Cogburn’s stubbornness and Mattie’s mental superiority. LeBoeuf’s verbal rivalry with Cogburn is made all the more hilarious by Mattie’s tendency to be the only one in the camping crew acting like an adult.
As good as the Coens are at presenting a distinctively wild West, this story wouldn’t work if the central performances from Bridges and Steinfeld didn’t gel. Luckily, they exchange lines like an actor and actress who have shared the screen a hundred times before.
Some of the film’s greater passages occur early on when the duo are getting to know each other. Watching Bridges’ Cogburn react with quizzical stares as Mattie continuously outsmarts him is a testament to how giving and wonderful an actor Bridges truly is. You sense that the man knows he is witnessing lightning in a bottle when it comes to what’s happening here with Steinfeld, and he must love it.
Chaney shows up late in the film, and Brolin plays him as a comically sad simpleton always complaining about his current predicament. He’s the sort of character that has you laughing hard one moment and terrified the next. Brolin makes Chaney’s apparent sadness almost charming, making it all the more shocking when he shifts into bad guy mode. Barry Pepper is also menacing as Lucky Ned Pepper, the frothing-at-the-mouth leader of a band of outlaws.
As with all of the genres they have approached, the Coens clearly relish the opportunity to play in a new sandbox. Their take on the Charles Portis novel is a dark one, laced with gnarly tree branches, bad teeth, heavy whiskey-drinking and lots of killing. Yet, the whole deal is oddly beautiful thanks to the work of their performers, tremendous camerawork by old standby Roger Deakins, and a stirring soundtrack from the criminally underrated Carter Burwell.
The film is full of trademark Coen brother eccentric touches, the sort of stuff fans might expect of them. There’s a wonderful interlude when Rooster and Mattie cross paths with the Bear Man (Ed Corbin), a wandering dental technician who’s more than a little dramatic when he speaks of the trade he just made for a dead body. The public hanging of three men plays out in a way that could’ve only been directed by the Coens.
So, yeah, the Coen brothers have done it again, taking over another genre and making it their own. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: I have never met a Coen brothers film I didn’t like. True Grit is another milestone in their amazing careers, as well as a showcase for an up-and-coming star and some of the industry’s finest actors.
It’s almost insulting to call it a remake. While John Wayne’s portrayal of Cogburn may have netted him an Oscar, Bridges is the real Rooster. As for Steinfeld, she’s the real deal.