Reviewed by GREG KING

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Stars: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper.

“Fill your hands with lead, you sons of bitches!”

Rooster Cogburn, the ornery, tough-as-nails, drunken, one-eyed US marshal dispensing his own brand of justice in the wild west is arguably John Wayne’s most iconic role in a long career (and the one for which he won his only Oscar). The sight of him galloping across the plain, reins stuck in his mouth and both guns blazing away, is unforgettable. So it was natural to wonder what the Coen brothers and Jeff Bridges would do to the character with their remake of True Grit.

We need not have worried too much, as the Coens have stamped the material with their own unique style and cynical sensibility. The violence here is also quite graphic at times. And like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the last great western from Hollywood, the Coens also show how death and violence leave an indelible imprint on a person’s psyche and change a person forever. The frontier was a brutal, unforgiving and inhospitable place, and was certainly no country for old men. However, they have changed the ending, adding a poignant coda, which comes across more as a eulogy for the character of Cogburn and the old west.

The Coens remain faithful to the 1968 novel from Charles Portis, and suffuse the film with a more gritty, darker and more realistic tone.

As envisaged by the Coens, True Grit becomes more the story of Mattie Ross (played by relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in her first feature film role), a feisty, humourless and sharp tongued 14 year old girl out to avenge the murder of her father. She is confident in her abilities, as we learn early on when she negotiates with the man who sold her father some horses before he was killed. Mattie engages the reluctant help of Cogburn (Bridges) to track down her father’s killer, who has fled into hostile Indian territory. Accompanying them is Le Boeuf, (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who has been on the trail of Ned Chaney (Josh Brolin) for quite some time. But even Mattie is unprepared for the bloodshed and violence that follows.

The Coens have effectively recreated the look and feel of the frontier – Jess Gonchor’s production design, Mary Zophres’ costumes, and even the weapons all reek of authenticity. And Roger Deakin’s cinematography is excellent, especially when the film moves into the great open country, and he makes good use of the wintry landscapes to suffuse the film with an extra layer of menace. Carter Burwell’s score also adds to the film, especially through his use of hymns to underscore some of the film’s themes and add an air of almost Biblical foreboding.

The Coens have assembled a solid cast to bring the characters to life. Apparently the Coens have waited several years until Bridges had aged sufficiently to convincingly play Cogburn. Whereas Wayne made the character larger than life, Bridges makes him more flawed, although he manages to find touches of unexpected humour and humanity in the character. There is also a strong chemistry between Bridges and Steinfeld who suffuses her character with a mix of precociousness, steely resolve and vulnerability. Cogburn has gone from marauder to wet nurse, but it is clear that he develops a grudging respect for Mattie, who embodies the “true grit” of the title.

Damon makes the most of his role as the cocky young ranger, a role played rather blandly by singer Glen Campbell in the original. Damon makes him a more complex character here whose loyalties are uncertain. There is plenty of healthy rivalry between Cogburn and Le Boeuf as they flex their muscles and compare gunmanship along the way. Brolin brings a hint of menace to his performance as Chaney. And Barry Pepper is also good as the villainous outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper in the famous legendary showdown sequence.

True Grit is that rarity – a remake that is every bit as good as, if not better than, the original. Audiences who are unfamiliar with the original True Grit will appreciate this film on its own merits as an exciting western. Those who have seen the original will not be disappointed with this intelligent and stylish remake which pays homage to Wayne’s character without diminishing the memory of the original.



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