Truer to the original novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 movie version starring John Wayne, the new True Grit is a smaller film in scope. In the original movie directed by Henry Hathaway, the big western sky and dusty rolling horizon were a mighty backdrop to the simple story of a young girl on a quest to avenge the murder of her father. With aging, beloved John Wayne in the saddle, that film captured a sunny, big country shine as wide as Wayne’s ten gallon cowboy hat.
Directors Joel and Ethan Coen trust the big sky hangs overhead but are more concerned with the shadows cast by a small group of people traversing a vast and lonely Indian territory. The camera often sits at eye level as if an almighty presence looks over the shoulders of characters saying, “you’re on your own, partner.” The new country here is dark and cold guided by human endeavor to advance foreword. What brilliant light there is comes only from the aspirations of the characters.
In the film, fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Seinfeld), arrives in town to claim the body of her murdered father and hire a gunslinger to kill the culprit, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who killed her dad. Wrangling and bargaining as if buying a cow, she chooses aging drunken Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to track and bring Chaney to justice. Cogburn’s killing decree is legendary and he’ll do the deed for fifty bucks.
Or so he says. He swipes the fifty bucks, buys her a ticket home, leaves a goodbye note, and hightails it out of town on the trail of a bigger bounty reward. He forms a two-man posse with Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), also on the trail of Chaney for the killing of a Texas man.
But hold on, cowboys. The little lass has got bees in her britches and soon gallops up from behind to join the posse. In traditional western style, the three searchers head off into a bleak and snowy sunset in search of justice and reward.
And so goes True Grit, an allegorical western in which the search is a near desperate attempt to connect with humankind. Young Mattie will bargain her dying breath to avenge her father’s murder and the gunmen discover motivation beyond cash and dutiful reward.
Joel and Ethan Coen, masters of several dark and cynical films (Fargo, No Country For Old Men), have allowed this film to run free of their cutting edge input, leaving it embraced to the genre and original story. At times brutally violent, as you can expect from a modern western, it often becomes profoundly emotional with a heartening decency we haven’t seen from these directors before.
Jeff Bridges as one-eyed Rooster Cogburn is skillful at recreating a beloved western character so recognizable as belonging to John Wayne, (Wayne won his only Oscar for the role). With a steely-eyed smirk, drunken sensibility and rattlesnake reaction to gun play, this wilder and more introspective Rooster Cogburn shakes the boots off any preconceived cowboy.
Beyond the wonderful performances by the cast, it is the Coen Brothers grasp of Americana virtues and violence, and their presentation of story that makes this film memorable, and even haunting. I entertained a gulp in my throat as the movie rode into its final sunset.