Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews
- Category: Jacqueline Monahan
- Published on 20 December 2010
- Written by Jacqueline Monahan
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
I loved the 1968 True Grit so much that I actually memorized some of the lines from it, amused at the Mattie Ross character’s deadpan delivery and stubborn determination. That’s why I was skeptical of this new production – not really a remake, but a more literal translation of the Charles Portis novel. More violent, tragic and raw, this True Grit reflects a wilder West, as unvarnished as the rapidly filled coffins in an undertaker’s parlor.
How can you top or even try to match casting that includes John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby? Leave it to the Coen Brothers to infuse their new incarnation with the likes of rascally Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and justice-seeking daughter Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld).
The story is the same. 14-year old Mattie wants to track down her father’s killer, so she hires maverick U.S. Marshal Cogburn – despite his renegade success record – or maybe because of it - and fondness for drink. When Texas Ranger LaBoeuf throws his leather hat into the ring, the trio takes off into wild Choctaw country to track Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) a dimwitted member of an outlaw gang headed by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).
There are clashes between the three, in alternating combinations, but they come through for each other in the violent wilderness, where unnatural death is commonplace and confrontations that include injury by knife or gun can begin with a knock on the door.
So strong is Mattie’s resolve, that she endures insults, physical assaults, and a kidnapping in the relentless pursuit of Tom Chaney.
Throughout, the atmospheric wilderness, buildings, period costumes and speech (devoid of contractions – I’ll becomes I will, don’t is always do not, etc.) the players seem to channel a bygone era as if they had lived through it and are now appointed guides.
Termination of life, in its many incarnations, is brought to the screen in an unflinching and sometimes savage manner. Even the corpses do not seem at peace. Juxtapose this against Mattie’s unflappable convictions, Cogburn’s savvy insouciance and La Boeuf’s bravado, and the result is an adventure to be reckoned with.
A sardonic Jeff Bridges looks like he relishes the role of booze-soaked U.S. Marshal Rooster (Reuben) Cogburn. He’s played a “starman” before, after all, but here gets to display a nonchalant sass combined with a skillful dose of badass, and all this with a black leather eye patch to punctuate – or puncture- his character’s checkered reputation.
Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf brings a pompous, blustery eagerness to the competitive, by-the-book lawman, contrasting Bridges’ more improvisational style and striking a good-cop, bad cop balance that varies by scene.
Hailee Steinfeld, at only 14 years of age, brings Mattie to life in a younger incarnation than Kim Darby’s iconic portrayal (Darby was 22 at the time). Steinfeld is fearless and remarkably self-possessed, at ease with the demeanor and speech necessary to propel her character into danger with only common sense and a misfiring pistol in a flour sack for protection.
Josh Brolin’s Chaney comes across as intellectually challenged and oddly pitiable, unworthy of being the object of a manhunt that has a posse comprised of such sharply focused participants.
The usually dapper Barry Pepper is externally homely but internally honorable as gang leader Lucky Ned Pepper – no relation.
Directors Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men) bring the tail end of the Wild West to life, adapting Portis’ novel with an eye toward maintaining the humor through the grit. Many times the grit wins, bringing with it a casual, pervasive ugliness, but die-hard fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
One caveat, though. Although the journey is intense, the conclusion wraps up too quickly, with a lot of disturbing, unsettling developments thrown in, eventually ending with a bit of a melancholy whimper that seems oddly out of place when everything before it was a nearly literal bang.
Still, True Grit delivers better than a ride on the Pony Express, and Mattie will make sure you get a good deal on the horse.