Much has been said about the Coen Brothers’ movie True Grit: some favourable, others not so much. The story is from Charles Portis’s novel, first made into the 1969 film of the same name and starring John Wayne as Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster in this new incarnation and the Coens have opted to use child actor, Hailee Steinfeld, to play the role of Mattie Ross, played in the ’69 version by then 21-year-old Kim Darby.
The movie follows 14-year-old Mattie as she sets out after her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney (played by Josh Brolin). Chaney’s a hired hand who lost big at cards one night and decided to pay his debt with violence rather than money. Mattie’s father, in an effort to restrain Chaney, is shot by the rascal who then flees into Indian Territory.
Mattie then decides to give chase and capture the fugitive to bring him to justice. She’s told that a U.S Marshal can help her in her quest as he has “true grit” ‘” an expression from which the movie gets its title. But the marshal, Rooster Cogburn, is a drunk and doesn’t take her seriously at first, thinking her charming if not a little forceful. Mattie on her part can’t be matched in resolve and soon he has no choice but to follow her whim and escort her into Indian Territory. Along the way they will meet the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon, who brings a slightly comic approach to his character ‘” you don’t know quite whether to laugh at him or take him seriously.
There are other differences between the two movies, old and new, other than the choice of age of their female actors. Anyone wanting to see the fast-paced type No Country for Old Men actioner will find instead a slower, plodding, and thoughtful dramatic piece. Everything is more sombre: from the dull colours of winter, rather than the less dreary and more visceral hues of autumn that the original picture was set in, to the music. And yet this is not to say the movie is boring; it’s just different, choosing to temper the usual flamboyance of the Western that the older version relished in, and opting for a truer representation of the Old West instead.
Take, for instance, the courtroom scene where Rooster Cogburn has to explain why he’s killed so many men while bringing them to justice. Philip French in his True Grit Review remarks on Roger Deakins’s photography:
“The courtroom in the 1969 film is bland, nondescript. Now populated by men in dark business suits, it evokes the paintings of Thomas Easkins, the Philadelphia recorder of emerging middle-class life, and represents the bourgeois world that’s encroaching on the frontier.”
This may show the Coen’s decision to make their film stick closer to the source material (at least in tone) than did their 1969 counterpart. In the end while this movie will not set your heart racing, especially if you’ve seen the original and so won’t see any surprises, it’s still a good drama and a competently made film; maybe one to see on a boring Sunday afternoon after the football game’s done.
- True Grit (2010) Directed by the Coen Brothers
- True Grit – review (13 February 2011, by Philip French for the Observer)