True Grit

Amid bare-backed trees and a blanket of snow, a one-eyed man and his horse hears something approaching. A bear draws near, sitting on his own horse. It is not a bear; it is a man wearing the head and fur of a bear. The two men eye each other for a long second, while a dark-haired girl with steely eyes and an astute face watches.

Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges as, respectively, Mattie Jones and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

This is one of the memorable images of True Grit, an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel by the Coen brothers. It is a more faithful rendering of the book and the Coens have professed not to have seen the first True Grit, a 1969 film starring John Wayne.

Both films centre on 14-year-old Mattie Ross (an equally-aged Hailee Steinfeld) in her quest to exact revenge on her father’s killer, one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She enlists the help of Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cockburn (Jeff Bridges), a rogue US Marshal fond of drink and grey of hair. Tagging along is Texas Ranger LeBeouf (Matt Damon) who has been tracking Chaney for months.

I watched the earlier film recently and I was struck by its simplicity and its performances. Although the theme of revenge might be dark, there was an air of almost light-hearted adventure in the original where Wayne carried the film with his swagger and old-school stardom. Most outstanding was the young-looking Kim Darby, 22 at the time, whose rhythmic delivery of dialogue sounds like a succession of bullets ringing out in the near-distance. There, the strength of her character was evident in the force of her patter. But in Hailee Steinfeld, it’s less obvious.

In a list of determined movie characters, Mattie would be at the top, making Scarface and Erin Brockovich blush at their ineptitude. Steinfeld has perhaps more nuance and tenderness which makes her more likable and her duelling with the Texas ranger is enjoyable for the aplomb of her put-downs, but I remained unconvinced by her tenacity, her sentences sounded chewy when they should have been clear as a cut diamond. However, those dark features and detached eyes suggest a cold vulnerability men may mistake for


The Coens’ choice of closely sticking to the book, as did they did for No Country For Old Men, is both a strength and a flaw. Opening with narration by an older Mattie, with homely piano and an image of the death of her father, lit beautifully in golden light, works much better than the ‘Look there he is! Oh, now he’s dead’ view of her father in the original. The Texas Ranger we see less of, which means the foster father relationship between Cogburn and Mattie is more evident, but I longed for the Coens to create, to insert more scenes of their own devising – say a chance encounter with another strong female character, or a greater conflict between the two leading men.

John Wayne and Kim Darby in True Grit (1969)

Jeff Bridges’ Cogburn, with his gruff whisper of a voice and expressions of continual befuddlement, is much less alpha male than John Wayne’s Rooster. Bridges has imbued the aging Cogburn with a melancholia, or perhaps just greater alcoholism, but it does have a payoff in the tender image of Cogburn seeping into his elderly frailty after having wearily carried a snake-bitten Mattie. It reminded me of Kevin Kline carrying Christina Ricci back home through the wood, ‘with its shivering saplings and soft gray sleet’ in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm.

Matt Damon’s playing of the self-regarding Ranger is enjoyable for its almost camp quality, an ironic smirk always lurking behind that moustache and earnest delivery of lines. The grit that he possesses is in his skills and independence in his occupation, whilst Cogburn’s grit is deteriorating after having reigned as a lone wolf for so long.

‘True grit’ of course belongs to Mattie, whose precocious bravery outshines all. But, as told in the early narration and later seen in the epilogue, she grows up to be a spinster, a fact I find quite saddening. Could no man learn to love such a lady, or could she simply not find anyone of equal measure?

This is a crafted film, shot with spare beauty by Roger Deakins, but the ambition and creativity shown here is lacking. The performances are not greater, just different, to the first movie. It is a deeper narrative and the Coen eccentricities are present, although in lesser quanitity. But for a second remake I was dissatisfied at the absence of greater interaction.

Here, the Coens lacked grit.



1 Response to “True Grit”

  1. 1 CMrok93 February 20, 2011 at 5:01 am

    It had its moments of coolness, and entertainment but since this was a Coen Brothers film I was expecting something more than just your ordinary, average western and I was kind of disappointed by that. Good Review though!

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