I was asked in Twitter if I thought True Grit is closer to the 1969 Hathaway’s (John Wayne) movie or the novel. My answer was that this current version is very much a Coens’ film.
Although I do confess that I have not read Charles Portis’ book, something I am not that concerned about, as I think that when a novel is made into a film, it becomes a work of art on its own right rather than just a mechanical translation of the written word into images. That transfer is a creative process in itself.
While the 1969 movie has very much been defined as the John Wayne’s version, this one is as much as a Hailee Steinfeld’s as is a Jeff Bridges’ film. I was extremely impressed by her performance, strong yet nuanced, magnificently conveying the courage, determination and childishness of Mattie Ross, as interpreted by the Coen brothers (they also wrote the screenplay). Hailee has joined a group of young female actors who play strong characters, such as Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s Léon (1994) – an interpretation which was impressive - and, certainly, Chloë Grace Moretz in Kick Ass and Let Me In. The poor little girl roles are not for any of this trio. I really did enjoy that initial scene of True Grit where Mattie (Hailee) bargains with the trader and the undertaker, I enjoyed it with a kind of strong inward looking smile.
That dual interpretation of Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon’s La Boeuf has all the Coens’ hallmark, although I did think that Jeff Bridges overcooked his portrayal of the drunken marshall. However, the touches of humour sprinkled onto the character makes this True Grit a very different film from the 1969 version. Certainly, this Rooster Cogburn is not that of John Wayne, and his relationship with the Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, is quixotic, to say the least. As in Sancho Panza, behind that apparent old drunkard and crooked façade, with a rather suspect past, lies a sharp and loyal man.
On this sense, there is here a nod towards the mythology of the classical American western, the genre that epitomized the myth building necessary for the development of the nation, for the American dream. This True Grit, as the well loved westerns of the past, provides a clear anchor point for an America where that pioneering spirit is in trouble, where too many dreams lies in tatters amongst the house repossessions, the unemployed, the collapsed banks and those whole quarters of cities falling into open dereliction.
Roger Deakins deserves a special mention, as his cinematography gives this film a very different look of those old westerns, gone are the cinemascope optimistic brilliant colours, replaced by a subdued visual interpretation of the great open landscapes more akin to an inward vision of contemporary America.
For those of you who have not see it either this version or the old one, or read the book, True Grit, set in the 1870s, follows the mission of Mattie Ross, a 14 year old girl (Hailee Steinfeld), to avenge the death of her father at the hands of Tom Chaney (a frightening Josh Brolin) in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She contracts Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt for her father’s murderer into Indian territory, while a Texas Ranger, La Boeuf (Matt Damon) is also in the chase of this man for a different murder. The constant bickering between this trio is vital for the development of the story.
Cliff hangers, humour, whisky, strong determination, a visually stunning interpretation of the American open landscape, and the murky past of the characters make this film rolling in this era of uncertainty.
My kudos to newcomer Hailee Steinfeld for having pulled the carpet from under Jeff Bridges’ feet.
It may win the Oscar, although I am more inclined to give it to The King’s Speech. On the other hand, I am not a judge, so...
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld
Running time: 110 Mins
For trailer please click here.