The 1969 True Grit is considered a minor classic by many moviegoers, featuring a strong cast, headed by John Wayne at his best (or worst depending on your point of view) and a classic western story, it was a critical and commercial hit, so even the idea of a remake may prove off putting for some viewers.
However this 2010 version is more of a reimagining than direct remake, sticking closer to the novel than the original, and displaying the Coen Brother’s typical off beat approach to filmmaking, it’s not without its flaws, and won’t be too all tastes, but overall is an entertaining 105 minutes.
The plot is relatively simple, its 1880’s Arizona and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeild) a 14 year old girl puts out a bounty to capture Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) the man who murdered her father. It takes her some time, but eventually she hires the services of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man she’s told has ‘True Grit’. Through odd circumstances Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) joins them, and the trio set out into the wilderness to hunt down Chaney. Though at first they don’t quite gel- mistrustful of each other, and uneasy at what lies ahead, whilst the men are simply doubtful of Mattie’s ability to hold herself in a fire fight.
The casting is excellent, Jeff Bridges (reuniting with the Coen’s for the first time Since Cult Classic The Big Lebowski) gives a memorable performance as Cogburn, bringing a lot of experience and Authority to the role, though his accent is at points a little hard to decipher.
In a typically Coen Brother twist the chief villain is absence for most of the film, showing up for an extended cameo in the last half an hour, in the wrong hands this could be a bad decision. But the Coen’s are so effective at building tension it’s an absence that isn’t detrimental to the film, and isn’t really noticed.
Josh Brolin a talented character actor (and another Coen Brother Veteran) makes the wait worth it, giving a memorable performance as the crazed Chaney -he isn’t just odd, he’s chilling, every mannerism and hand movement feeling fully believable, he looks and sounds like a killer. Despite being so evil, he ends being a surprisingly likeable character, which could have done with more screen time. He is assisted by several henchmen who have rather less memorable roles in the film, lumbered with forgettable dialogue and extremely limited screen time; few make an impact (Moon, played by Rising Star Dobnall Gleeson being one of the few exceptions), though several meet inventive fates.
But the most memorable, and indeed surprising performance is Steinfeild’s, beating 15,000 fellow actresses to the role of Mattie, she is simply astonishing in her cinematic debut. Only 14 when she was cast, she more than matches her co-stars, balancing humour, naivety and steadfastness in the role, and earning a well-deserved Oscar Nomination in the process.
Unfortunately Matt Damon, though having fun with his role, (bringing a dose of welcome humour to the somewhat dour plot in the process), and remaining as charismatic as ever, is the weak link. He can’t quite shake off his screen image and his ‘everyman’ approach to acting does him few favours- in the company of the powerhouse performances from his colleagues his more relaxed turn feels unconvincing and out of place in the film.
The film, like many of the Coen Brother’s takes a while to get going, the purely expository opening is overlong, and full of annoying supporting characters, who serve little purpose in the film and have seemingly escaped from the ‘generic cliché’ encyclopaedia. Some viewers may well cringe at Mattie’s horse’s name, especially when considering the context in which the naming happens.
Once the simple story starts in earnest it still finds time to bog itself down, the middle section sags, irrelevant arguments and dialogue scenes slowing the film, which relies on clichés and coincidence’s to keep the story moving far too often. The Coen’s trademark weirdness (perhaps a hook for some viewers) is not always a benefit to the film- a rather strange trail doctor quickly gets annoying in his few scenes, whilst a shooting competition involving bread as targets is completely irrelevant and slows the film noticeably. For such a simple story it takes far too long to reach its conclusion.
The film is longer than it needs to be, but the dialogue is sharply written, the Coens creating generally believable characters and situations, giving the cast great material to work with in the process. A few one-liners stick out-after a brutal gunfight with Chaney’s men Mattie asks Cogburn what to do with the bodies, he comments -‘If them men wanted a decent burial they should have got themselves killed in summer’, and leaves them to rot in the snow, its grim but awkwardly funny viewing. Moments like this, help to dispel thoughts of the original and demonstrate the Coen’s…interesting approach to storytelling.
Whilst the audience may have differing experiences watching the film, it’s clear that the cast and crew were having fun making it.
Despite its title and cast this is a dialogue heavy film, the Coens more interested in Character than Gore. The first of the sporadic action scenes happens around halfway through the film, brutal and messy it’s over in minutes but thrilling nonetheless. The finale on the other hand, whilst well directed and… surprising ends too quickly, considering the amount of time it took to get there, as with other Coen Brother films (No Country For Old Men for instance) it is a resolution that will prove very divisive.
Some viewers may find the lack of conventional action annoying; there isn’t a ‘showdown’ (at least not in the ‘normal’ sense) between the good guy and bad guy, and the battles don’t resemble traditional Westerns-messy (in both violence and the way they are filmed) and drawn out. But since when do you go into a Coen brother film expecting the norm?
Whilst the film may have a few problems story wise, technically it’s impressive. Working with regular Cinematographer Roger Deakins the Coens display a commanding knowledge of filmmaking, the performances (most of them), direction , cinematography and editing are all first rate, and several images- Cogburn silhouetted against the sky, and Mattie’s fall into a snake strewn cave, for instance , linger in the memory long after the film has ended.
The production design is generally convincing, clothes, horses and guns all look accurate to the era, whilst the unnamed town in which the film opens is beautifully constructed, a salon, bank, stables and a hotel feature together with several detailed houses. It’s a valuable, somewhat surprising element of the film, considering the limited amount of time spent in the town.
A pair of bookends opens and closes the film; it’s a rather flimsy way to frame the story and smacks of lazy screenwriting.
Combining the Coen Brother’s unique style (whether a good or bad thing is best left to the viewer’s discretion) with a strong cast and setting, True Grit is an overlong, uneven but generally enjoyable reimagining of its forbearer. It may not convince fans of the original or please viewers looking for something a little more action packed, but overall this is one film worth paying the bounty for.
7/10 Paul Ashwell