Remakes of John Wayne movies are a rare thing. Stagecoach was remade twice, but never with memorable results. The Sons of Katie Elder was kinda/sorta remade as the Mark Wahlberg film Four Brothers, but the modern-day gang parable was barely recognizable next to the source material.
In True Grit, Jeff Bridges would be stepping into the iconic role that earned Wayne his Best Actor Oscar and the only character that I can recall that Wayne actually played twice. It was a ballsy move for an actor now permanently identified with “The Dude,” the memorable slacker from The Big Lebowski. Fortunately for Bridges, the Coen Brothers, also writer/directors for Lebowski, had the actor’s back.
The brothers seem to have pretended that the 1969 film never existed, going back to the original Charles Portis novel. This is a faithful adaptation rather than the large screen TV western that Henry Hathaway chose to make forty years earlier, preserving the book’s language, more somber tone and satirical edge.
Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer.
While structurally similar to the original film, this True Grit is not burdened by the need to be a starring vehicle for the Duke. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is still seeking justice for her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She contracts U.S. Marshal Ruben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges) to pursue Chaney into Indian territory. Texas Ranger LeBeouf (Matt Damon), however, wants Chaney for the murder of a state senator and wants Cogburn to leave the determined girl behind.
In this film, Bridges does far more than step out of John Wayne’s shadow. His Cogburn is a character utterly unique in his own filmography, a completely original creation so specific, so individual, that it feels as if the character was conjured directly from the pages of Portis’ fiction. A grumbling, shambling mountain of man, this dishevelled, drunken but ultimately (mostly) honorable man feels so true to the Rooster in the novel that I can almost see the smile spreading across Portis’ face.
Also remaining true to the original novel, the character of Mattie Ross is brought to fore as the central character in the story. This means that a 14-year-old girl has to share the screen with a veteran actor like Bridges and hold her own. I’ve seen enough annoyingly precocious kid actors to know that this was a casting decision that could have gone horribly wrong. It didn’t. Prim, pious, resolute and in possession of an unshakable sense of justice, Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie is a pint-sized force of nature that almost instantly wins the audience over to her side as she steamrolls an adult world that dismisses her at its own peril.
Matt Damon’s LeBeouf is hard to compare to the original film, since the casting of Glen Campbell left such a vacuum where this character should have been. The role is scaled back to the dimensions of the novel, leaving the stage mostly to Rooster and Mattie, but Damon manages to carve out a memorable presence with the screen time he’s given. His Texas Ranger is somewhat of a dandy and more than a little full of himself, but ultimately a good man to have on your side in a scrap.
Because this film skips the unnecessarily drawn out opening and just plunges us into Mattie’s quest, the character of Tom Chaney doesn’t appear until near the very end, and he’s such of a self-pitying wretch that killing him almost seems like a waste of a bullet. The leader of the gang he falls in with, “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, hopefully no relation), is another matter. He’s still a killer and a thief, but he’s not without a code of honor. When Mattie falls into their hands, Pepper is more impressed with her steel than he is with Chaney’s whining, taking her under his wing and protecting her from him. Pepper the actor has only a few minutes on screen but his Ned Pepper makes a bigger impact than the cardboard villain that Robert Duvall got stuck with in the original.
I’m tempted to call True Grit the Coen Brothers’ second successful western in a row. No Country for Old Men may have been set in recent times, but the modern trappings seem like a facade over a story that could easily be a contemporary of Rooster and Mattie. Five years ago, no one would have pegged the Coen Brothers as spiritual successors of John Ford, but now I’m not so sure it isn’t worth talking about.