When the Coens first announced they were going to be remaking John Wayne’s classic Western TRUE GRIT, we couldn’t help but bemoan another unnecessary remake. But then we remembered that it was the Coen Brothers and surely they would do enough with the film to make us forget about the original. That turned out to be true because the similarities between the two films are scarce, but rather than applauding the direction of the Coen Brothers, we should have been applauding the casting of Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn because without his brilliant and charismatic performance, this would be another forgotten film in a long line of recent Westerns.
The premise is simple enough in that young Mattie (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) hires the bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn to track down the man who murdered her father. Rooster is one heck of a character, with the grumpiness of a bitter grandpa, but the fight of a young gunslinger. He reluctantly decides to help her out and ends up partnering with an eager Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf. Matt Damon tackles the character of LaBoeuf with both an innocence and enthusiasm that is a nice contradiction to Cogburn’s pessimistic attitude towards the world. Throw in a wise-beyond-her-years Mattie and we have three standard Western characters that now have a depth to them that was missing in our grandfather’s Westerns.
Along with the performance of Bridges, the dialogue in the film really steals the show. Mattie and LaBoeuf share some witty banter back and forth that lightens the mood and Cogburn has some great dialogue in his own right, although his usually isn’t pointed at anyone in particular. Each character in the film has a way of talking that is charming and unusual, which makes the audience want to hear more of what these characters have to say. The Coens knew they couldn’t make a Western with today’s dialogue and their crafting of an entire way of speaking was much appreciated.
Although I definitely enjoyed the film, I felt it lacked some emotion, especially from Mattie. I know they were trying to make her seem more like a woman than a little girl, but the fact remains she was 14 years-old and was out to kill a man. That’s tough to deal with for a 30 year-old man and having her break down and cry, or seek comfort from Cogburn or LaBoeuf would have added a realism to the film that was missing. We did get a little bit towards the end, but only when it was absolutely necessary. The same can be said for LaBoeuf, whose Texas Ranger posturing was clearly an act, but we never got to peek behind the curtain as to how scared or nervous he really was, even while being shot at. Sure, we had our subtleties in typical Coen fashion, but we could have gone deeper into each character.
But Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is worth the price of admission alone. The film is really fun and with the great dialogue between all the characters, there’s not a moment of downtime. Even when the action starts, just listening to them talk (sometimes about nothing) is more than enough. This TRUE GRIT is a far cry from the original version, but that’s definitely not a bad thing in this case.