Watching the Coen Brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit, you can’t help but think they’re less than enamored with the 1969 original. While both are based on the classic Charles Portis novel, the Coen Brothers’ version paints a much bleaker picture, is much more true to the source material, and is full of performances that make the original’s actors look—well, a little pedestrian.
Yes, John Wayne did win his only Oscar for his performance as Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 True Grit, but let’s be honest—it was more of a Lifetime Achievement Award than a real assessment of his work as the cranky, one-eyed Marshal.
For the 2010 version, the Coen Brothers turned to ‘The Dude’ himself, Jeff Bridges, who’s now given the two best performances of his lengthy career in just the past 12 months (his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart being the other one).
True Grit begins with a voice-over narration by a grown Mattie Ross. She’s telling the story of how, in the late 1800’s, she set out as a 14-year-old to hunt down and kill Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father. Plucky enough to know what the job entails, but realistic enough to know that she’ll need help, little Mattie (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) hires Cogburn (Bridges), the meanest Marshal in the territories and a man with ‘true grit’, which she considers the most essential quality for the job.
At the same time a Texas Ranger named LeBeouf (Matt Damon) is also hot on Chaney’s trail for a host of other crimes the man has committed, including the killing of a state senator. And, with the desolate wilds of Texas as their backdrop, the trio venture off on their joint mission.
Bridges’ performance alone is enough reason to see True Grit. His slurring, drawling, cocksure Cogburn is a marked contrast to the character that Wayne gave us back in 1969. While you get the sense that Wayne was almost going through the motions, Bridges creates an entirely new, captivating character, and you simply can’t take your eyes off him. Equal parts bad-ass, drunk, and (eventually) caring father figure, it’s as Oscar-worthy as any performance this year.
And even better is Steinfeld, who, at the tender age of 14, gives a virtuoso performance as the young Mattie. She brings all the gumption, pluck, and maturity the role requires, and her scene early on where she negotiates a refund from the local horse-seller is nothing short of priceless. But she also brilliantly lets a bit of ‘scared little girl’ through, too—particularly in a later scene where she has to fearfully pick up a gun and shoot it.
More than anything, though, the chemistry between the leads is what keeps True Grit moving. While Wayne and Kim Darby (the original Mattie) were famously at odds with each other (“She was the goddamn lousiest actress I ever worked with,” Wayne once said), you could tell that there is a great deal of mutual respect between Bridges and Steinfeld, and it shines through on screen.
Give the Coen Brothers credit for abandoning their tendency to be a little ‘wacky’ and to just present a good old-fashioned Western. In doing so, they’ve put together what may be the best of its genre since 1991’s Unforgiven. And while occasional scenes ramble on longer than needed (the courtroom, the hanged man), by and large True Grit hits far more than it misses.
It may be a bleak and violent tale, but it’s also plenty full of heart and drama.