As if swathes of cultish admirers and a dizzying number of industry plaudits weren’t enough, the Coens’ aspirations show no signs of abating if True Grit is anything to go by. Having excelled in almost every cinematic genre that exists until they invent a new one, the brothers can now be included in a minority group of filmmakers whose great accomplishment is to have remade a film which surpasses the original, a club which, in this critic’s opinion, had up until now been solely populated by Alfred Hitchcock for his re-imagining of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Opening with the biblical text, “The wicked flee where none pursueth”, we soon learn that the rogue in question may have fled but he is certainly not free, at least, not for long, particularly with the quick-witted and hard-bargaining teenager Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) orchestrating his capture. Adapted from Charles Portis’s novel of the same name, Mattie’s opening narration (told some twenty years later) is oddly tinged with nostalgia despite the content of her speech; her father was murdered by Chaney, a trusted friend, leaving her to seek justice no matter the cost. It’s a typically peculiar linguistic contrast that marks so many Coen brothers film, caught between the tongue-in-cheek and the tragic.
Travelling to the town where the crime was committed, Mattie sets about finding a deputy Marshall with ‘true grit’, someone who can nail the job economically and, most importantly, efficiently. He arrives in the silhouetted form of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), seen recounting a particularly violent apprehension of some criminals, his grizzly voice insinuating a no nonsense attitude, as well the consumption of unknown quantities of whisky and life’s tougher challenges. Accepting her employ, the two are promptly accompanied by Texas Ranger LaBouef (Matt Damon), pronounced LeBeef, who is in hot pursuit of Chaney for different felonies upsetting Mattie’s determination to see him hung for her father’s murder. They nonetheless form a fairly amicable band as they ride through Indian country meeting both sweet and unsavoury characters along the way.
Whilst one is at times distracted comparing the Coen’s True Grit with Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation, the former’s interpretation differs enough from its cinematic predecessor – and occasionally its original text – both tonally and structurally to make it a curiosity in its own right. Adopting a darker sensibility than Hathaway, Bridges’ Rooster is more three dimensional than John Wayne’s sentimental portrayal and better compliments Mattie’s mission to bring Chaney to justice, Steinfeld’s performance also far more brooding than her predecessor Kim Darby.
Unfortunately, True Grit suffers from a rhythmically awkward conclusion, a rather too hurried tying up of events, as well as a somewhat lacklustre confrontation in the scene when Mattie finally comes face to face with Chaney. The real pleasures of True Grit derive from the staple strong points of many other Coen brothers’ films, notably the sparkling dialogue, the cinematography and their unrivalled ability to extract brilliant performances. The biggest surprise is certainly Matt Damon’s comical performance as LeBouef, his polite Southern manner betrayed by a thinly veiled vanity and narcissism proving once again there is more to Damon than his lampooning in Team America.
The Coens have redeemed themselves after their last remake, the disastrous reimaging of The Ladykillers which many at the time denounced as being the first significant crack to emerge in the Coens’ oeuvre. They might have been right about that film but they certainly got the big picture wrong as they cement that they are here to stay and still have plenty of tricks up their sleeves.