Let’s check out the Coen Brothers remake of the 1969 classic True Grit. Like many others I was shocked at this choice by the brothers as it seemed entirely disconnected from everything else they’ve ever done. However, I am a fan of the original and it’s my main connection with the super-stardom aura that was John Wayne.
I’ve seen the original maybe 25 times over the years and know it inside-out. I went into this thinking that there was absolutely nothing they could possibly do to make a better film of this story. My thinking was that if you weren’t familiar with the original then perhaps this would go over well as an updated version. For those of us who saw the first one there’d likely be lots to be disappointed about.
Thankfully the original was done in true Hollywood fashion and that meant that they strayed often enough from the original book the film is based on to give this truer version some room to breathe.
The obvious main commentary is on Jeff Bridges and his portrayal of Federal Marshall Rooster Cogburn. John Wayne owned the role. If Wayne lived in the era he could easily be the lawman incarnate. It seemed a Herculean task for anyone to play the role and not have us constantly thinking of Wayne and yet Bridges pulls it off. He plays the role much grittier than Wayne and it just works. Within moments you forget both of the actors and focus on the character.
Hallee Steinfeld plays the pivotal role of the 14 year-old girl bent on justice for the murder of her father. If she’s not nominated for this effort then there’s no justice in Hollywood. She owns the screen and makes every scene she’s in work. How much of this is due to her talent or the material is still to be seen but from all we can view here she certainly perfected the effort.
Also present is Matt Damon playing the bounty-hunting Texas Ranger. I’m not sure what to say about Damon here. He does a good job but the Ranger just doesn’t quite ever mesh into the story all that well and, here, feels like extra baggage. There’s a slight hint of interest between his character and Steinfeld’s but that goes nowhere and his biggest moment of the original film is gone here. His few key moments could just as easily been handled with random walk-on characters.
The bad guys are certainly noteworthy. Josh Brolin, whom I thought an odd choice for the quirky, skittish role of outlaw Tom Chaney also shines. His domineering physique and presence could have, I suspect, easily handled the Cogburn role with some aging and yet here it vanishes away flawlessly leaving behind a pitch-perfect Chaney. Barry Pepper, coincidentally enough (or was it?) plays Ned Pepper, the leader of the gang. Pepper is a very good looking guy and here they turn him into someone who looks like he was plucked right out of the old west of the 1870’s.
The film had me mesmerized time and again. The music was spot-on. The cinematography and visuals were brilliant. Time and again I wondered about how they managed to take nearly every strong element of the original and improve upon it.
The film, however, is not without its issues. There’s a really distracting and obvious continuity issue involving water just as the action gets going. Also some of the scenes feel lesser than the original and sometimes surprisingly so. There’s no mention of Cogburn’s love for his horse Bo so when the key scene involving the horse happens we don’t have the necessary interest to care.
When Cogburn ends up trapped under the body of Bo in the original we go immediately on edge as Wayne feels conflicted at the loss of his steed but knows he’s in major trouble with the bad guys baring down on him. If he could just free himself or, at the least, reach his rifle which remains just out of reach. Virtually all of that is missing here. Cogburn falls beneath the horse, we get a momentary shot of him there but not even a real sense of being trapped and then the scene concludes.
There’s also the moment involving the girl’s horse. Cogburn puts him down without even a hint as to the reasoning. New viewers could easily surmise it’s because the horse let them down and Cogburn’s taking out his frustration. It’s a major oversight in my view. I heard several people around us say, “Why’d he shoot the horse?”
The final problem involves the last scene. We’re shown the girl much later, now in her 40’s. The problem here is that she looks absolutely nothing like her younger self and I just don’t mean from age. Nothing about the older actress seems even remotely similar to the younger one. Some minimal care should have been taken here. It doesn’t help that her closing dialogue also feels underwhelming given the great story that preceded it.
As I said, I didn’t think the original was a movie that could be equaled. In ways it wasn’t. No one will ever own the screen the way John Wayne did here and the original has some wonderful moments in it that just keep it firmly ensconced as a classic. However, the new version is a classic in its own right and deserves its own spot in history and in our hearts.