With a list of films like The Big Lebowski, Fargo and Burn After Reading to their name, it’s something of a surprise for the Coen Brothers to opt to do a Western – and a remake, at that. True Grit was originally a novel by Charles Portis, published in 1968, which was adapted as a John Wayne film in 1969. As a Western, it is unusual in its choice of a 14-year-old girl as narrator and central protagonist, although maybe this is what drew the notoriously oddball Coen Brothers to the project.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is Mattie Ross, a headstrong young teenager who heads into town to settle her father’s affairs. Daddy Ross has been shot by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), one of his employees, and when it appears that no one will do anything about it, Mattie decides to take matters into her own hands. She hires a grizzly old US Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and despite his claims that he works better alone, she buys a pony and they head off into Choctaw territory to track down Chaney. They’re accompanied by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also tracking Chaney for another murder in Texas.
Arguments ensue over the fate of Chaney – Mattie wants him to be hanged in Fort Smith in recognition of her father’s murder, while LaBoeuf wants to take him to Texas so he can claim the reward on Chaney’s head. In the end, they all end up working together to bring Chaney down. Barry Pepper also pops up as Ned Pepper, the leader of the outlaw gang now sheltering Chaney. I won’t be spoiling the plot by saying the true grit of the title refers not only to Cogburn, but also to Mattie herself, with her dogged determination to see justice done.
Jeff Bridges is..well..Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon puts in a solid performance as the hapless ranger. Yet it is Steinfeld who steals the film, carrying the weight of the movie on her young shoulders. She portrays Mattie as spirited, yet possessed by an inherent sense of right and wrong. There are flashes of wit in the film, punctuating the serious tone which often borders on sombre. Mattie’s strong pronouncements could see her come off as self-righteous, but I found myself rooting for her all the same. Pepper tells her that she doesn’t “varnish her opinion”, and he’s not wrong.
It feels like an authentic Western, with special attention lavished on the dialogue. You can tell the Coens have great respect for the genre, with the score being based on 19th century hymns. It’s a beautifully shot film, and therefore no surprise that Roger Deakins should win the Bafta for Best Cinematography. It certainly deserves each of its nominations in this award season.