When her father is murdered by his hired hand Chaney (Josh Brolin, The Goonies), Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) comes in to town to settle his affairs. There she discovers that Chaney has run off to the Indian Territory and that the Sheriff (Leom Rossom, The Big Lebowski) will not pursue him there. Not happy with this answer, Mattie sets about hiring a U.S. Marshall to do it, settling on Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, The Door in the Floor) as she believes he has “true grit”. Cogburn is an alcoholic with a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later, but with some reluctance he agrees to take her case. Also joining in the search for Chaney is a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, Ponyo), who reveals that Chaney murdered a Texas state Senator and has a bounty on his head. The trio wrangle back and forth, sometimes cooperating, sometimes not, as they pursue Chaney and the men he has fallen in with, “Lucky” Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper, Battlefield Earth) gang. Can the trio work together long enough to find Chaney, and will they survive when they do?
True Grit seemed a strange choice for a remake by the Coen Brothers (A Serious Man), a remake of a Western novel already adapted into one of John Wayne’s most beloved later films, but the story’s focus on character, dialogue, and its odd mix of characters fit their sensibilities well. Still, aside from some minor differences in staging and the temperament of cast members, there are many scenes in this film which are nearly identical to the original film. Two of the best (and most funny) scenes in the original film feature Mattie Ross facing down against a crafty horse trader played by Strother Martin (Up in Smoke), and here the scenes are the same, with Dakin Matthews even looking and sounding like Martin. There’s very little innovation other than keeping Mattie and LaBoeuf’s original fates from the novel and keeping the novel’s framing device of Mattie telling the story as an older woman, keeping her point of view throughout.
On its own merits, True Grit is an excellent Western. The Coens are working with good material and deliver it looking spectacular. Damon, Bridges, and Steinfeld all give good performances, with new comer Steinfeld holding her own with much more experienced actors. At its heart this is a story about the characters, not about the action or the chase, and the Coens excel at creating memorable characters. The only possible complaint is that the final confrontation between Cogburn and Pepper’s gang is too low-key. It is possible that viewers who have not seen the original film, will not feel the same way. While the cast is largely an improvement over the 1969 adaptation, Barry Pepper is not equal to Robert Duvall, and when he’s called to deliver “Lucky” Ned’s famous reply to Rooster Cogburn, it feels wrong. Bridges, too, is more believable as a crafty gunfighter, shooting from ambush, than riding out on horseback with his reins in his teeth. Josh Brolin isn’t given much to do except glower; it’s strange that he was cast in the Chaney role at all.
Fans of the Coens may be disappointed that they’ve turned in a film that is less distinctive than their best efforts, but is instead straight forward but very well crafted. Fans of the original need not fear that the Coens didn’t do justice to the original. With the notable exception of the final confrontation, True Grit is equal to or better than the original, especially in the casting of Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld, who are great improvements over Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. True Grit is an enjoyable Western, if not a must-see.