True Grit, Charles Portis’ novel has already inspired a popular 1969 movie starring John Wayne and Kim Darby, so some might chafe at the need for a remake. What the Coen Brothers have done will erase all doubt; every moment of the film feels like an authentic glimpse at the true “Wild West”, with performances that are, to the smallest cameo, impossible to improve. The dialogue is written and delivered so simply and beautifully, True Grit is a film every History and English student should study. It’s also a funny, suspenseful and ultimately poignant experience that will leave you utterly satisfied.
Jeff Bridges, deserving of another Oscar nomination, plays the impossibly grizzled, drunken and quick-triggered US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, and thirteen year-old Hailee Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie Ross, a stubborn Arkansas girl who hires Cogburn to hunt down her father’s killer. Also on the trail of the stupid but dangerous Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) is a humorously pompous Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf, well played by Matt Damon in a role originally played onscreen by singer Glenn Campbell. You’ll smile every time Bridges calls him Mr. LeBeef.
Chaney has fallen in with a crowd of outlaws, so Cogburn, LeBouef and tagalong Mattie have to venture into the dangerous Indian Territories to capture him. The Coen Brothers excel at creating surreal and suspenseful encounters before the surprising climax. The violence and lawlessness is sudden and brutal, but not beyond a PG-13 level, which makes True Grit a film almost the whole family can enjoy. It is humorous, exciting and educational at the same time. Marmaduke? Not so much.
Early in the film, Mattie tells Cogburn she’s hiring him because he is said to possess “true grit”, although the fact that he may well slaughter her father’s craven killer without a second thought pleases her as well. The Coen Brothers, Bridges, Steinfeld, Damon, Barry Pepper and the rest of the cast show true grit themselves in bringing a historically accurate yet thoroughly entertaining western to an audience that hasn’t seen a good one since, well, the Coen’s No Country for Old Men three years ago.
UPDATE: True Grit is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.