"TRUE GRIT" (2010) Review
I have never read Charles Portis’ 1968 novel called "TRUE GRIT". And my only glimpse of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film adaptation was of John Wayne charging horseback toward a band of outlaws, while armed with a weapon in both hands. So it was with great curiosity that I went to see Joel and Ethan Coen’s recent film adaptation of the novel.
”TRUE GRIT” told the story of 14 year-old Mattie Ross’s efforts to seek justice and retribution for the murder of her father in post-Civil War western Arkansas. Due to the local law’s failure to arrest her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, Mattie travels to Fort Smith and recruits a U.S. Marshal named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn to hunt down and arrest Chaney in the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Unbeknownst to Mattie, Cogburn teams up with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who seeks Chaney for the murder of a state senator and his dog. The two men depart Fort Smith and cross into Indian Territory without Mattie. However, she refuses to be left behind and quickly catches up with the two men.
I must admit that I had no idea how I would accept ”TRUE GRIT”. First of all, it was a remake of a successful that led to an Academy Award for its star. Many remakes tend to be inferior to the original movie. However, there have been remakes that are just as good as the original – like James Mangold’s ”3:10 TO YUMA”. There have also been remakes that turned out to be superior to the original – like 1941’s ”THE MALTESE FALCON” and 1988’s ”DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS”. Since I have never seen the 1969 version of ”TRUE GRIT” in its entirety, I do not see how I could compare it to this new version. I will admit that it turned out to be a very entertaining and intelligent adaptation of Portis’ novel.
In short, I enjoyed ”TRUE GRIT” very much. Thanks to Joel and Ethan Coen’s writing and direction, the movie struck me as a well-balanced combination of a character study, action film and coming-of-age tale. The movie’s first half, which featured Mattie Ross’s attempts to settle her father’s affairs and recruit Cogburn or anyone else willing to hunt down Chaney. A good deal of the movie’s midway point featured interactions between the three protagonists – Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf – during their journey through the Indian Territory. But once Mattie and Cogburn come across outlaws associated with a fugitive gang leader named “Lucky” Ned Pepper, the movie’s action kicks into high gear. More importantly, the movie’s shift into action did not impede its strong characterizations and drama one bit. Another aspect of ”TRUE GRIT” that I had enjoyed was the dark humor – a trademark of the Coens’ work – that permeated the movie. It certainly befitted the movie’s dark coming-of-age tale and its characters.
I also have to give kudos to the movie’s production designer, Jess Goncher. He did a superb job in re-creating Fort Smith, Arkansas and the Indian Territory during the late 1860s. One of the best things he ever did was choose or suggest the production film the movie in New Mexico and Texas – states that bordered Oklahoma (formerly the Indian Territory). In doing so, he allowed the movie’s setting to adhere closer to Portis’ setting in the novel. Goncher was ably assisted by costume designer Mary Zophres, whose costumes perfectly captured the movie’s setting and character; and cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose photography strongly reminded me of the old daguerreotype images of the mid-to-late 19th century.
Matt Damon found himself following in the footsteps of singer Glen Campbell, in his portrayal of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. I have seen some of the 1969 film and I must admit that Campbell gave a pretty solid performance. But Damon’s portrayal of the character struck me as more detailed and skillful. In fact, the actor did an excellent job in portraying the competent, yet egotistical lawman. Not only did Damon made me forget that he had very little experience with Westerns, he is one of two actors I have ever seen convey the correct method (breathing included) in long distance shooting. Josh Brolin had more experience with Westerns – including a co-starring role in the ABC series, ”THE YOUNG RIDERS” and the Coens’ award-winning film, ”NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”. He portrayed the heroes’ main target, hired hand/outlaw Tom Chaney. The actor did not appear in many scenes of ”TRUE GRIT”, but his character permeated the movie’s first half like a malevolent spirit. Once he made his appearance, Brolin’s Chaney seemed insignificant and dimwitted. Yet, as the movie continued on, Brolin revealed more of Chaney’s cunning and stealth with great skill and subtlety. The movie also benefitted from a solid performance by supporting actor Barry Pepper, who portrayed “Lucky” Ned Pepper, an outlaw leader who is sought by Cogburn. The actor’s Ned Pepper struck me as a curious mixture of ruthlessness, pragmatism and honor. He seemed to have no qualms in killing the 14 year-old Mattie over her evasions regarding Cogburn’s whereabouts. And yet, after she honestly answered his questions, his character seemed very willing to keep his word about sparing her life. I have always been an admirer of Pepper’s talents. This role certainly confirmed my opinion.
When I had discovered that Jeff Bridges would end up reprising the role that led to an Academy Award for John Wayne, I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. I eventually realized that my sympathy would be wasted on him. Bridges was talented and charismatic enough to put his own stamp on the role of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn. Sure enough, Bridges did exactly just that. His portrayal as Cogburn seemed so thorough that I found it difficult to see the actor within the character. His darker portrayal of the character also made me forget about Wayne’s friendlier spin on the role. The main character of ”TRUE GRIT”, in my opinion, turned out to be one Mattie Ross, the 14 year-old daughter of the murdered man. Her desire and determination to seek retribution for her father’s death turned out to be story’s catalyst. Hailee Steinfeld beautifully captured every aspect of Mattie’s complex nature. In fact, there were times I had felt as if I was watching a strong-willed and ruthless woman inside an adolescent’s body. However, Steinfeld’s performance also reminded me that behind the strong will and ruthlessness lurked an innocent and inexperienced young girl. Steinfeld’s chemistry with her co-stars seemed so strong that I found myself wondering how Cogburn, LeBouef or both would regard Mattie if she had been an adult. I have heard speculations of a possible Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Steinfeld. In my opinion, she deserved a nomination for Best Actress. After all, she was not only the leading female character, but the story’s main character.
It just recently occurred to me that ”TRUE GRIT” failed to earn any Golden Globe nominations – major or minor, last month. Frankly, I considered this a joke. Not only did I enjoy it very much, I consider it to be one of the best movies I have seen this year. It is a rare occurrence to find a remake that is just as good or perhaps even slightly better than the original. Fortunately, the movie has just earned 10 Academy Award nominations. And thanks to Ethan and Joel Coen, ”TRUE GRIT turned out to be one of those rare gems.