With Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper. Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images. 114 minutes.
Give the Coen Brothers some credit. At least they didn’t pull a “Psycho.” Several years ago, Gus van Sant, an otherwise reputable filmmaker, used his clout to do a virtual shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” with a new cast. There was simply no reason for the film to exist, and critics and audiences quickly dismissed it.
TRUE GRIT is something different, although not quite as different as the Coens and their cheering section would have you believe. Instead of a remake of the 1969 movie that won John Wayne his Oscar as one-eyed bounty hunter “Rooster” Cogburn, it purports to be an adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel. This may be a distinction without a difference as the stories of the two films are virtually identical.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a determined teenage girl in the old West who means to see the men who murdered her father brought to justice. If the local authorities won’t do it, she’ll take matters into her own hands. She hires Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and insists on accompanying him on the mission. Along the way they meet up with a Texas Ranger named LaBouef (Matt Damon) who’s also after the bad guys, but Mattie doesn’t want them to pay for some crime in Texas. She wants them to pay for murdering her father. As they go on their quest these three very different people with very different agendas come to respect the “true grit” exhibited by the others.
Although much is made in the publicity in how Bridges wears Cogburn’s eyepatch on his right eye whereas John Wayne wore it on his left, this is an utterly trivial and superficial difference. The chief distinction between the two films is in 1969 veteran studio director Henry Hathaway was making an old-style Hollywood film and in 2010 the Coens are making a stark western. Where Hathaway had country music star Glen Campbell as LaBouef, now we get actor Matt Damon. Where the earlier film was dominated by John Wayne sending up several decades of his western roles, here the emphasis is on Matty’s quest, and the dynamics among the three heroes.
These are not minor things, and as an exercise in comparative filmmaking, it is much more richly rewarding that van Sant’s slavish remake of “Psycho.” Yet, in the end, it is largely the same story. For viewers who have never seen or long forgotten the ’69 movie, this is a professional rendition of the tale, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins. For those eager to see how the Coens have transformed it to their own unique sensibility, it may be a disappointment. It’s strictly a matter of taste which is the better telling, with those who like old Hollywood values likely to prefer the Hathaway/Wayne version while those who prefer less sentimentality and a harder edge will go with the Coens.
Ultimately, “True Grit” is not without its rewards, but the Coens can’t quite make the case why this story needed to be told again.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.