It’s uncertain whether Joel and Ethan Coen set out to make their most commercially successful film in a 30 year career by electing to remake the classic John Wayne Western True Grit as their 15th feature, however it has been by far their biggest grossing domestic picture to date, taking twice as much at the box office than their previous Oscar winner No Country For Old Men which kick-started their partnership with Paramount producer Scott Rudin a few years back.
Having never been much of a Western fan, aside from the superior ‘Spaghetti’ variety of Sergio Leone especially the “Dollars Trilogy” which propelled Clint Eastwood to international stardom, I wasn’t the first in line to see this new version despite it being the latest offering from the Coen Brothers. Admittedly, I tend to prefer their original comedies but I was intrigued to see this primarily for the acclaimed performances of Jeff Bridges as ‘Rooster’ Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross both of whom earned Academy Award nominations.
When her father is brutally murdered in Fort Smith, Arkansas by the cowardly outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), 14 year old Mattie Ross comes to town to collect his body and hire a U.S. Marshal to track down the killer and bring him to justice. Out of the Sheriff’s recommendations she selects ‘Rooster’ Cogburn as he has the reputation of being the most ruthless. Mattie is exceptionally astute for her years and has a commanding knowledge of the laws of business enabling her to run rings around the local inhabitants outwitting them in a series of trades over her late father’s effects, raising sufficient money to bankroll her revenge.
There aren’t that many structural differences from the Hal Wallis production, both are true to the spirit of the Charles Portis novel. Jeff Bridge’s Cogburn is clearly a cold-blooded slayer and a broken man; much less avuncular or amusingly soused than John Wayne and without his immediate warmth or charm. Hailee Steinfeld is the same age as her character and despite her smarts she is obviously still a vulnerable young girl, whereas Kim Darby was 21 when she played a hardier, tomboyish Mattie Ross in the 1969 original.
Although the biggest difference in casting is Matt Damon in the role of the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf who hopes to claim the bounty out on Chaney for killing a State Senator. The part initially played by country singer Glenn Campbell was very much a cameo whereas the Coens have transferred a lot of the affability from the Duke’s take on Cogburn to Damon’s LaBoeuf making him more sympathetic thus transforming the story from a basic two-hander into a more complex triangle.
The Blu-ray edition reveals the huge visual accomplishment achieved by the Coen Brother’s regular cinematographer Roger Deakins. The colour palette is distinctly different to the previous version which was bathed in California sunshine so typical of Westerns made at the time; instead we have bitter cold, steely blue skies starkly contrasted with delicate snowflakes. The 1080p picture sports faultless clarity and high detail particularly noticeable in hair and skin tones, whilst the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack crackles with the ambient sounds of the great outdoors, wind and water are well represented and the surprisingly few gunshots deeply resonate.
It’s also worth mentioning Carter Burwell’s disarmingly simplistic score which riffs around the two spiritual tunes “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “Lean On Jesus” which were first used to striking effect in Charles Laughton’s classic film noir The Night of the Hunter, clearly a massive influence on the Coen Brothers. There is a small selection of fairly standard extras the one exception being the 30 minute documentary Charles Portis: The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Heard Of… which profiles the life and work of the author and compares both film versions to the original text.
True Grit is a milestone picture for the Coen Brothers that not only provides them with their first unabashed box office hit but demonstrates an assured maturity and artistic commitment which is no longer confined to the low budget obscurity that prevented so many of their significant early films from reaching justifiably larger audiences.