The last time The Coen Brothers tried to remake a classic film, they didn’t hit one out of the park and instead ground out with bases loaded with The Ladykillers. Back in 2004, this was the lean period for the Coens, just following their romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty and people were starting to ask, “What’s happened to the Coen Brothers?” Always having hope, they came back with violence with No Country For Old Men, a revisionist western if I’ve ever seen one. And now they’ve come, guns out and ready to show if they can hang with the recent boom of great westerns.
The film is about young Mattie Ross (Haylee Steinfeld) who has just lost her father due to an outlaw by the name of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who killed her father in cold blood and took his two gold coins and his horses and ran off to Choctaw territory. She goes to identify the body and stays in town in order to hire a U.S. Marshall in order to get Chaney back and make things right. She is suggested three names, but she wants Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) because he is described as the most merciless. He deflects her offers but then accepts only to go off without her. When she catches up with him, she sees he’s made a deal with Texas Ranger La Boeuf but insists she goes with them, because she is paying Cogburn. This is where the adventure truly begins.
To tell you anymore would do the film an injustice. If you’ve seen the original, this one has some different story beats and punches up the humor tenfold, in that Coen Bros type that we’ve all grown to love. When walking out of the screening, the first thing I thought of was that these characters, especially Mattie, Cogburn and La Boeuf have the ‘gift of gab’, with rapid fire wit and tongue twisting insults that the wild west was made for.
Haylee Steinfeld is a revelation as the 14 year old Mattie Ross, and considering she is that age makes the role more intriguing. She controls the screen every second she’s on it, hanging toe to toe with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. There’s one scene in particular, toward the beginning of the film, where she’s bargaining with the man who sold the horses to her father in the first place. It’s a verbal assault between the two; this middle-aged businessman and a 14 year old girl. And because she’s tenacious, she wins out with determination, that one driving force that she has right now which is to find Chaney and bring him in. She’s a wonder to behold and if she isn’t nominated come Oscar time, I will be severely disappointed in the Academy.
This is the Jeff Bridges role to see this holiday season. He conveys a gruffness, with no mention of The Dude at all and instead doesn’t do a copy of John Wayne’s iconic role and instead making it his own. I actually prefer his portrayal as Cogburn, because essentially he is not the ‘star’ of this film and instead a supporting act to Mattie Ross. The same goes for Matt Damon. He keeps impressing more and more with his choices in film and this is no exception. Most would kill to be part of a Coen Bros. film, and he relishes in the Texas droll, giving us a character who seems to be in it for himself but has good intentions. Josh Brolin is creepy as the simple Chaney, a man we’re convinced is this evil villain who must be part of something bigger. And it must be said, when we see Barry Pepper come onscreen as “Lucky” Ned Pepper, you will be pleasantly surprised to see he’s still acting.
The Coens have a way with situations, no matter how bizarre they might seem at first, because they give it a realistic spin. Be it a medicine man in a bear skin who wanders the frontier, looking for bodies to scavenge from, to a repentant condemned man about to be hanged. With any other filmmaker these scenes would come across as just creepy or just flat out funny. But they somehow convey a balance between the two, where you can’t help but snicker but will always remember them, no matter how insignificant they might seem at the time. They give life to this world and you are a party to it all.
True Grit is one of the best films of the year, hands down. In fact it’s my number 3 film this year and I want to see it many more times, which tends to be the feeling the best films in the Coen’s filmography tend to convey. It’s not only a wonderful entry in the western genre, but a great character study, a take on revenge and ultimately asks the question: Is it really worth it in the end? If you really want that revenge, you might have to give something up in order to attain it.
9 out of 10