movie poster for the new version of Charles Portis’ classic novel is as
basic and no-frills as an old west wanted poster. And, strangely enough for
such a bare-bones approach, it is a perfect representation of what the movie
is able to do so strongly – capturing in bold strokes with little fuss or
background a sturdy, old-fashioned, all-American story.
fact, this classic retelling brings new storytelling discipline out in the
talented but offbeat Joel and Ethan Coen. This is about as straightforward
a narrative as they have ever taken on – and to their credit they do not
chafe under the confines of genre filmmaking, instead they add some true
majesty to an already iconic tale.
confessions time here – with very few exceptions, I hate westerns. It is
just a style and genre that has never held much charm or interest to me.
However, I have always loved True Grit – whether the film (the only
John Wayne movie I can sit through) or the even better novel, which I first
read in junior high and am in the process of rereading as I write this.
Coen Brothers stick much more closely to the novel than the former film –
placing the 14-year-old girl character of Mattie Ross (played with great
skill by first-time actress Hailee Steinfeld) rather than the more colorful
lawman she hired, Rooster Cogburn.
Cogburn, Jeff Bridges totally reinvents an iconic character – there is not
even a whiff of John Wayne’s over-the-top bravado in the same role – and yet
the character is fascinating. Although Bridges cedes the spotlight to
Steinfeld to a certain extent, the character is impossible not to be riveted
by while he is on screen.
Although, oddly, for a filmmaking team known for their offbeat senses of
humor, the one aspect of the novel which does not really survive the
translation to the new film is the wit with which Portis leavened his
novel. The humor is much more subdued and muted in the film, as if the
Coens felt that they had to prove they could make a serious genre film
without camping it up. It leaves a bit of a hole in the narrative, though,
the story is meant to be rather funny. It would not have been disrespectful
for the filmmakers to have allowed this lightness to show more distinctly.
Also, of course, the source material, while still wonderful, is no longer as
trenchant as it was. The idea of a 14-year-old girl bravely standing up for
herself and competently surviving in a man’s world was relatively cutting
edge when the first movie came out in 1969 – or when
the novel was released in 1968 – at the height of the women’s
liberation movement. However, it is not such a novelty in the modern world.
Still, even with these two slight faults, the new version of True Grit
14-year-old girl is Mattie Ross, a smart and solemn and not very attractive
young teen whose father was murdered by Tom Chaney, a no-good foreman on
their farm (played by Josh Brolin). Chaney has disappeared apparently
living in Indian Territory with hardened local outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper
(ironically played by Barry Pepper – no relation, obviously, since Lucky Ned
was a fictional character).
hires Cogburn to capture Chaney because he has “grit” and he is somewhat
ruthless. They hook up with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and
despite the fact that they all have different motivations, they head into
the wilderness to find that outlaws.
a simple story, but damned if it doesn’t still work like a charm. The new
True Grit is in many ways even better than the 1960s classic film –
and that is a truly impressive achievement.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com.
All rights reserved. Posted: January 8, 2011.