When I first saw the trailer for True Grit (2010 version) I wondered why Ethan and Joel Coen would bother to remake the classic 1969 movie that starred John Wayne, and I wondered it this would be some sort of parody. I suspect most people had that reaction, except for those whose reaction was “Who is John Wayne?”
As it turns out, this is nothing like a parody. It’s an old-fashioned Western in the classic style. True Grit is a great story. The Coen brothers are talented story-tellers and they tell this one straight, sticking very close to the novel by Charles Portis, closer in fact than the 1969 movie did.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is an unusually tough-minded 14-year-old girl with a curiously literary manner of speech. (Oddly, all the semi-literate desperadoes in the movie speak in a curiously literary manner. The conceit of the original novel was that Mattie is telling the story years later, and unconsciously puts her own words into the mouths of the other characters.)
Mattie’s father has been murdered by one on his ranch hands, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She wants to hire someone to track down Chaney and bring him to justice. She wants someone tough enough to get the job done, and with a keen eye for character she pick Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a hard-bitten, hard-drinking U.S. Marshal who doesn’t seem overly scrupulous about killing people who he thinks deserve it. Like most of the other characters he seems rather nonplussed by Mattie, who even at 14 seems a rather scary lady.
But Mattie has a rival, a boastful Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who wants to track down Chaney for a murder committed in Texas (which carries a much larger reward.) For Mattie it is totally unacceptable that Chaney should hang for killing someone else.
There are a lot of good performances here, but Hailee Steinfeld’s deserves special mention. She was only 13 years old when she was hired to play Mattie. The usual procedure in Hollywood is that when you have a movie centered around a teenaged character, you hire a 20-something actor do the job. (Kim Darby was 20 when she played Mattie in 1969.) Few teenage actors are really capable of handling a big dramatic role. The Coen brothers took a big chance in casting someone who was actually the right age, and in this case it payed off well for them.
Fans of the 1969 movie should understand that this one is somewhat darker and more violent. Rooster Cogburn in particular is less lovable. However these differences mostly reflect the original novel.