Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
The Duke or the Dude? Not as tough a choice as you might think.
Rooster Cogburn, one of John Wayne’s most iconic roles, is reinterpreted by Jeff Bridges (a.k.a. the coolest man in Hollywood) in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. It should be stressed that True Grit is not a remake of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film, but a re-adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel. However, the plot is inevitably the same. The drunken marshall Cogburn is recruited by headstrong teen Mattie Ross (Hailie Steinfeld) to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s killer. Also on Chaney’s trail is Matt Damon’s Texas ranger LaBoeuf. This trepidatious triumvirate head off in pursuit of their quarry, unsure of their route and unsure of each other.
This material seems tailor-made for the Coens. Whilst the original True Grit made the original trio (Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell) likeable and somehow workable, the Coens focus on the awkward and silly nature of this ramshackle group. John Wayne’s bedtime stories for Kim Darby are now the drunken ramblings of a properly pickled Cogburn; meanwhile, the once dashing LaBoeuf is now egotistical and caddish. Not only does this approach allow the Coens to maintain their absurdist sense of humour, but it also stays true to the tone of Portis’ novel. The 1969 film lacked edge; in this version, True Grit actually has grit! The threat of violence is palpable throughout, whilst Coen regulars DP Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell create a wild West thick with atmosphere. You can practically smell the sweat and gunpowder. It’s also a more accessible film than usual Coens fare, as they eschew both the intellectual melancholy of A Serious Man and the potentially anti-climactic ambiguity of No Country For Old Men. The Western as a genre is defined by its broad appeal, and the Coens know better than to tamper with such an established maxim.
Despite verging on the incomprehensible, Jeff Bridges makes the role of Rooster Cogburn his own. Investing more in the character than John Wayne, Cogburn 2.0 is a borderline tramp, looking and sounding less clean-cut than the Duke ever managed. Damon brings a goofy charm to the role of LaBoeuf. Josh Brolin does a lot with little screentime as Chaney, and Barry Pepper is deliciously mean as the bandit ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper. Yet, even better than all of these is Steinfeld. Her ballsy, determined performance belies her youth, more than holding her own against even the Dude. A long career beckons.
In every aspect of its craft, True Grit is flawless. The writing is lyrical, the sights and sounds are beautiful and the acting is sublime. From gritty beginning to poignant conclusion, True Grit is a masterpiece.