The original True Grit was released in 1969 (see my review) was one of the films that marked the end of the Western in cinema. Primarily about the relationship between hard-as-nails teen Mattie (Kim Darby) and grizzled old marshall Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne, in an Academy Award winning performance), it worked because Mattie was fearless and dogged in her pursuit of justice for the ranch hand who murdered her father, and because Cogburn was a down-on-his-luck alcoholic with a desire to do well.
The chemistry of this all-important relationship fails to gel in the remake directed by Ethan and Joel Coen because Hailee Steinfeld (who plays Mattie) isn’t tough and fearless and because in their zeal to jump to the pursuit the Coens cut out the first ten minutes of the original, where we meet and learn what drives Mattie. Worse, Jeff Bridges does a poor job as Rooster Cogburn, playing him as a falling-down drunk with has no redeeming characteristics, cold and distant.
Mattie’s father has been killed by ranch hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin in one of the best performances in the film), who subsequently bolted into Indian territory and joined forces with the outlaw Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper). Mattie hires Cogburn to pursue him after the sheriff explains that he has no jurisdiction in Indian lands. Tagging along is pretty-boy Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who seeks Chaney for his own reasons.
Westerns are morality plays, where there’s no space for ambiguity or temptation. In our morally ambiguous times, it’s satisfying to see this simplicity, and that’s one reason the more slovenly Bridges as Cogburn doesn’t work: unlike Wayne in the original, he’s not a good man fallen on bad times, but a thoroughly unlikeable character, a rehash of his role as Blake in Crazy Heart.
True Grit is a story about vengeance, pursuit and the unforgiving world of the Old West, with sweeping Texan landscapes and splendid production and exteriors. Without sympathetic characters, however, I was never engaged in the pursuit and found the ending anticlimactic and ambiguous. There’s great buzz for this film and Steinfeld’s performance, so if you want to know what people are talking about, this film might just be on your to-watch list anyway.
In the original story, Mattie is torn between her flirtatious relationship with the young and handsome La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) and her growing admiration for Cogburn, a clear father figure. In the remake, La Boeuf leaves after an argument with Cogburn about the Civil War, a move that I found completely inexplicable, and doesn’t reappear for quite a while, making most of the pursuit just Cogburn and Mattie on the hunt.
What most made this version of True Grit fail to engage me, however, was the uneven performance of Steinfeld as Mattie. For the story to make sense, Mattie needed to be completely fearless, vulnerable inside but not out, but Steinfeld often had tears in her eyes or otherwise looked overwhelmed by the results of her quest for vengeance.
Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) in “True Grit”
I’ve been accused by fellow critics of paying too much attention to how films end, particularly remakes, but without adding any spoilers, I have to again complain that the change in the ending from the original film to this remake is not only inexplicable, it also dramatically changes the nature of the relationship between Cogburn and Mattie in a way that calls into question Cogburn’s motivation for accepting the quest in the first place. Did he stick with it through extraordinary circumstances out of a growing love and admiration for Mattie, the child he never had, or was it to get the promised reward and move on?
Modern filmmaking often seems to be characterized by mediocre acting with amazing visual effects and sets. It’s the technical side of cinema that’s easiest to master, film after film, but without a fundamentally engaging story, without characters with whom we identify and learn to care about as the movie proceeds, we are doomed to vapid entertainment of the most crass and uninteresting sort.
True Grit was an enjoyable film, beautifully produced, and perhaps my fundamental mistake was in watching the first film immediately before the remake. If you’re not familiar with the source material, many of the weaknesses I saw in the film might not matter to you. But then again, a film about vengeance is a mythic tale at its most fundamental, and if you don’t believe that the main characters — in this case the team of Mattie and Cogburn — can achieve vengeance against seemingly insurmountable odds, then there is no satisfaction of a story well told.