By: Luke Parker, Columnist
Featured image courtesy of theguardian.com
The role which headlines the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” was the one which handed John Wayne his first and only Oscar nearly fifty years ago. Rooster Cogburn, the grizzled, unruly U.S. Marshal, was fitted in 1969 to bolster the Duke and his distinct onscreen stature; with a lone eyepatch, it was Wayne playing himself best. But when the character was handed over to Jeff Bridges in 2010, it wasn’t the Wayne character who did the talkin’, the drinkin’, and the shootin’, it was Bridges’, whose eyepatch rested on the other side.
I don’t remember exactly which eye was covered in Charles Portis’ novel. My guess would be that the Coen’s, whose film feels at many points as if it were lifted straight from the page, got it right. We knew we were watching John Wayne in the original “True Grit.” When watching the Brothers’ version, we aren’t thinking about Jeff Bridges; we are thinking about Rooster Cogburn and Portis, whose story is now being told as it was intended.
That is a rather strange compliment for the Brothers, whose work is among the most original in recent memory. It’s as if the two men had reached a point in 2010 where they felt no need to prove their creative ability and allowed themselves to focus solely on the art of storytelling. In this way, “True Grit” feels more like an old fable than an adaptation.
The film starts out with 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arriving in Fort Smith, Arkansas soon after the death of her father. He was murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who quickly fled into the nearby Indian Territory and joined up with the “Lucky” Ned Pepper gang. The local sheriff tells Mattie as such, leaving her to seek out Marshall Cogburn, a man of raspy disposition, in the outhouse behind the town’s saloon.
There couldn’t be a more suitable introduction for either character. Steinfeld, who was 13 at the time, much closer to Mattie’s age than 20-year-old Kim Darby was during the original, quickly establishes herself among the men and adults of the uninviting West, as well as her fellow performers, as a commanding and stubborn force – early “negotiations” with a Fort Smith merchant set up the film’s verbal wit perfectly. And Bridges on the toilet, whose voice will continue to sound no less constipated, seems right at home.
But just like this, all of the Coen’s and Bridges’ interpretations seem much closer to the reality of those times. It is certainly closer than the 1969 version was, which, as many of the classic Hollywood Westerns often would, glorified the indisputably rough period to make way for boisterous heroic acts.
The premise behind this film’s final heroic act is the same as it was in John Wayne’s, with a four-against-one standoff on horseback. The dialogue in the two scenes are almost exactly alike, all the way down to Lucky Ned’s (Barry Pepper) instigating “one-eyed fat man” insult, but experiencing all else that cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell bring to the scene parallels many of the variances this work has from its predecessor. Even Glen Campbell’s LaBeouf, the Texas Ranger who joins Mattie and Cogburn is outmatched by Matt Damon.
I feel at a disadvantage having to describe a film whose title uses its two most suitable adjectives. The Coen’s “True Grit” is a splendid example of what the Western was and still can be.