What’s the Story: After her father was murdered by the hands of outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) sets out on a quest to capture Chaney for what he’s done—enlisting with the assistance of aging U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) for hire to help her find her father’s killer, along with a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon) for tracking him for his own reasons. This long and dangerous journey of their challenges them on what it means to have “grit” amid a challenging adventure ahead of them.
There’s something about the combination of Joel & Ethan Coen and the genre of westerns that sits right oddly. Right when True Grit was released during the busy holiday season, it was back when I was aware of who the directing brothers were, but I hadn’t come across their filmography until later. And when it comes to talking about anything involving westerns, it’s always been my least favorite genre sometimes when it can be hard to keep me engaged when certain movies back then keep it that old-fashioned flare in its storytelling. Still, No Country for Old Man was treated as a modern neo-western, and it turned out to be a great film, plain and simple. So with those low expectations, I had walked into the crowded theater thinking it wouldn’t be anything special, I couldn’t believe I just saw an entertaining western that was more than that.
The exciting thing is that the Coens were doing the story itself since they believed they loved what came before and hoped to improve it through their brains. This is an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, later made into the classic 1969 Henry Hathaway film featuring the late John Wayne’s first and only Oscar-winning performance. Having not read or seen what came before it, it would be possible to say it’s a remake that boosts its existence where it’s almost tailor-made for the directing duo to make this more faithful to the source material. The style they’re primarily known for in this 19th-century setting focus more heavily on its characters rather than its moments of action. And yes, there are great shootouts, but I appreciated how the action took a back seat when telling an almost realistic presentation. The simple execution of cowboys on a revenge path that doesn’t go too big and taking what people loved about the original makes it mostly better.
You really find yourself involved with this trio on the search to find this man, and it’s hard wondering if it would be possible to be in their place knowing the possibility of getting killed is at a definite high. Their version of the old west is darker in a time where everybody wants justice in a clear perspective. The realism of the great dialogue and its locations makes its surroundings immersive in following the three and it would be a tiring thing motive to get what’s done, but in Mattie’s mind, nothing matters or nobody walks away until this mind is caught or dead. A typical western as it seems on the surface, the Coens’ way of making this sit well and uneasy with its audience rides high in giving us a film that most won’t find downright dull.
If we’re going into the acting here, what can I say other than thinking they were outstanding just from hearing who’ll be in this? Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn was the perfect actor to play this part, especially in one of his most notable roles after winning his Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart that same year. This eyepatch-wearing, booze-drinking, almost menacing bounty hunter shows his demeanor throughout, but that captures every scene with his vulnerability. Some will argue his performance is better than The Duke’s himself. But, again, having not seen the original, Bridges takes it in making this character his own, and while he’s an old fierce, he’s a man who won’t bring mercy to shoot you down. Matt Damon as LaBeouf was the surprise out of the veteran actors since I didn’t know if he could pull this intense Texas Ranger, but for someone as great as Damon in what he’s been in before this, his presence is worthy of recognition. The banter that shifts between Bridges and Damon entertain with the funniest, rarest comedic lines comes from them talking back, which is unexpected. And though Josh Brolin doesn’t appear until the third act, it’s a strong role as the criminal Tom Cheney.
All of them were great, as expected. Though as memorable as they were, none of them stood out the most than the then-unknown Hailee Steinfeld, making her film debut, as Mattie Ross. She steals the film from everybody. Nobody knew who she was when we all watched this, and to witness one fantastic performance from a 14-year-old is genuinely something worth remembering decades later. What makes her a vital protagonist is she’s curiously headstrong and witty with this determination of her act of avenging her father. An actress as talented as Steinfeld needs to carry the film on the weight of commanding the screen when being in the responsible profession of the award-winning siblings and acting alongside professionals, showing true promise of what’s to come in her career. Over 15,000 actresses were up for this role, which for Steinfeld must’ve been the role of a lifetime, which is easy to call one of the most impressive acting debuts in Hollywood. I, too, was 14 when this came out, and I couldn’t believe someone like her owned everything at that time. No wonder she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at that age.
The Coens have never failed to throw a perfectly made piece of cinema and make sure they feel comfortable serving a narrative that acts on a study of what it means to take on vengeance or have yourself be thrilled in a world that used to be unfaithful and mean. Nothing from their collaboration and Roger Deakins will ever be miserable when his cinematography is simply beautiful through its shots of horse riding or its many views of the town and wilderness. The more underrated aspects I noticed were the score by Carter Burwell and its incredible sound design because of just the sounds of the gunshots or just hearing the wind grads me. And there’s isn’t much action, but it delivers when it does. I forgot it was PG-13 for a moment involving cut fingers and someone getting blasted in the face.
Basically, the only flaw this carries is that the pacing can be struggling at times, as it comes with the territory in their filmography. It’s mainly like that during the second act that still kept me engaged to how it leads into the climax. But besides that, this is generally one of the best remakes of the last decade, if not “the” best. True Grit is exceptional in how the source material was treated with what we were offered. It was the best-reviewed film at the end of 2010, becoming, at the time, the second-largest western at the box office behind Dances with Wolves. In addition, it was also nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the film with the most nominations that year; although it failed to win any. If I had to let it win something, I would’ve given Steinfeld Best Supporting Actress that year over Melissa Leo in The Fighter (who was great, btw) since I believe she was the best out of everybody in the category.
Overall, True Grit brought back the good feeling of witnessing a refreshing remake for the genre. The Coen brothers understood the crafts of their vision that’s pulled together in spades with a few changes while still their great direction and unbelievable performances from Jeff Bridges and an unforgettable acting debut from the one and only Hailee Steinfeld. Safe to say, this was one of my favorites of 2010.