‘True Grit’ (2010) review: In pursuit of vengeance, a daughter’s quest

‘True Grit’ remake strips glam, grandeur from Old West

Stories of the Old West induce nostalgic, feel-good memories of good versus evil, the sheriff against the outlaw, the cowboy with the white hat battling the cowboy with the black hat. But in the Coen brothers’ masterful remake of “True Grit,” the story was more about a daughter’s bloodlust and vengeance against her father’s murderer than about upholding any law.

Adhering more closely to Charles Portis’ original novel than its 1969 predecessor of the same name (which starred John Wayne), “True Grit” returned the Old West to its proper, bloody place in history. It was a different time, where a fight over a pocket knife could end in death, one by a gun, the other by the hangman’s noose. But this is where the story begins, with the entrance of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, in a beautifully acted debut performance), a bright, brash, silver-tongued, Scripture-spewing, pigtail-wearing 14-year-old, tending to the business of her murdered father. After skillfully negotiating her way through several town businessmen, Mattie starts her search for a U.S. marshall who can track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who took her father’s life. Enter Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed marshall known more for killing his targets than bringing them in. His exploits are legendary, and Mattie, with an excited gleam in her eyes, hires him, despite his slothfulness, affinity for liquor and general moral-lacking character, to deal with Chaney.

After the initial wrangling, Mattie and Rooster surge head-first into Indian territory (in which there were surprisingly few Indians) to begin their manhunt. Tagging along is Texas Ranger LeBeouf (for some reason pronounced LeBeef), played by Matt Damon, who also wants Chaney, dead or alive, for murderous crimes committed elsewhere. LeBeouf (and his ridiculously thick mustache) is a proud, boastful creature, eagerly showing off his ranger badge and wearing unnecessarily loud spurs. His antics are clown-like, and in the creepy, this-isn’t-funny kind of way.

The story, while heavily focused on Rooster, opens and closes with voiceovers from adult Mattie, realigning the story’s center and bringing it back to her (a device used in the novel). After all, this was her story. The original Mattie (played by 21-year-old Kim Darby) was softer, more lady-like. The Coen brothers, however, brought back the Mattie Portis created, one full of moxy and a will as hard as steel, but who bounces between a child wearing her father’s clothes to a stoic, humorless warrior. Showing herself to be more than capable on their journey, Mattie proves herself to both men, earning a respect she could not care less about.

In a split from the original, the Coen brothers laced the remake with humorous one-liners and quotes directly from the book. Rooster’s quips, while obvious, are nevertheless funny. And his drunken rants made for some excellent entertainment. The score, while evoking a western aura, provided energy and appropriately altered or augmented the current mood the actors were characterizing. “True Grit” was able to portray the yawning gap between youthful enthusiasm and idealism (embodied in Mattie) and the cruel realities of life (which amounts to a crotchety old man with one eye). While the goal was to rain down retribution on Chaney for his heinous act, there was no good or bad here; it just was.

It’s rare when a 14-year-old has the conviction and strength of will to change the minds of adults, but don’t be surprised when you realize that you’d follow Mattie anywhere. Even after a serial killer.

Five out of five stars.

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