I’ve seen dozen of westerns – both the newer ones made in this century, as well as most of the classics. I’d even seen the 1969 True Grit starring The Duke, John Wayne. But in truth, I can’t call it one of my favorites. Wayne wasn’t playing Rooster Cogburn in that film. Instead he was playing John Wayne dressed up as Cogburn, a fat, one-eyed man. Wayne garnered his only Oscar for his performance in that film, but quite likely it was a ‘lifetime achievement award’ dressed up as Best Performance by an Actor
True Grit, the just released today version directed by the Coen Bros., according to the myriad of articles, commentaries, discussions, and interviews – is not a remake of the earlier film. The Coen’s say it is a new film version of the book.
Fine. Whatever. They made the film and can call it whatever they like, or they can describe the finished film however they like. I’m not going to compare the two films because a) I can’t, having not seen the earlier one in quite some time, and b) I won’t because that was then and this is now.
First, the story itself is a simple matter of western revenge/justice. 14 year old Mattie Ross, played spectacularly by newcomer Hailee Steinfield, is on a mission to bring back one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who murdered her father. She can’t do it herself, so she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) because he is the meanest and deadliest US Marshall in these parts of the country (Texas, Arkansas, and Choctaw Nation, a part of the Indian Territories). Joining them on the chase is a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).
The film runs 110 minutes and you won’t be amazed by the gun fights, or the picturesque and beautiful locations, or even the technical skills of the director. It’s not like the film is visually drab or anything like that. It is just not giving you anything to go ‘wow’ about.
Instead you’ll listen and enjoy every one of the spoken words. To me, the original author of the novel True Grit, Charles Portis, has captured the very essence of the West of the 1870’s. The actors speak in English, so the words aren’t new. But we don’t hear anyone talking in today’s world like they did in this film.
The dialogues are superb, and the exchanges between young Mattie and Rooster, or Mattie and LeBoeuf, are so rich and so right. Try this one:
LaBoeuf: A little earlier I gave some thought to stealin’ a kiss from you, although you are very young… and you’re unattractive to boot. But now I’m of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.
Mattie Ross: Well, one would be as unpleasant as the other.
Or this one when Cogburn is trying to get some current information from a known associate of Lucky Ned Pepper:
Rooster Cogburn: When’s the last time you saw Ned Pepper?
Emmett Quincy: I don’t remember any Ned Pepper.
Rooster Cogburn: Short feisty fella, nervous and quick, got a messed-up lower lip.
Emmett Quincy: That don’t bring nobody to mind. A funny lip?
Rooster Cogburn: Wasn’t always like that, I shot him in it.
Emmett Quincy: In the lower lip? What was you aiming at?
Rooster Cogburn: His upper lip.
And so it goes. Sometimes you would laugh out loud because not only was the line perfectly written, but it was perfectly delivered. Let’s give Joel and Ethan Coen a rousing pat on the back for getting so many great performances from the cast.
Jeff Bridges, now known as The Dude from his role in The Great Lebowski, does his best work here, well, since last year’s Crazy Heart. This is not The Dude doing The Duke. This is Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. But between the eye-patch, the beard, the slouching hat worn so low on his head, and the drunkenness of the character, it becomes difficult to see Bridges at all. Instead we see Cogburn, and only Cogburn.
Damon as LaBoeuf is also hidden. He wears a buckskin jacket buttoned up to the throat, and a western hat, also pulled down low. He also seems thicker and broader. Sizewise, Damon’s LaBoeuf looks nothing like Jason Bourne from a few years back. But the role calls for him to be somewhat unlikable. Damon smoothly does what he does, and even though he has to master a Texas accent, and the speech styles of the Old West, his delivery is spot on.
But for me, the film is carried by young Steinfield as Mattie Ross. Her determination, her fearlessness, her courage are remarkable. Having to speak in a way that for sure, she doesn’t hear in her school, or amongst her friends, must have been quite a challenge. She nailed the role and aced the dialogue. To boot, she beat out 15,000 other young actresses who either interviewed, auditioned, or sent in resumes for this part. Her future in films seems limitless.
Not only that, but the physical challenges for this role must have daunting. Such things as riding, shooting, and even crossing a river on horseback while wearing a heavy woolen coat don’t just happen. It takes a lot of work.
I think you’ll find that this film has many things to savor and remember. While there’s death and violence, and the underlying theme is savage retribution (they’re trying to bring back Chaney dead or alive), what you come away with is a talkative film interspersed with some violence as opposed to a violent film interspersed with some clever one liners.
Rather than seeing Rooster Cogburn as an admirably heroic figure despite his orneriness, the best thing of all is that you’ll perceive that Mattie, yes, 14-year-old Mattie Ross, is really and truly heroic, and it is she who is the one with True Grit.