The biggest surprise amongst many in Joel and Ethan Coen’s new remake of ‘True Grit’ (or, if you want to adhere strictly to press materials, it’s more of a re-adaptation of the original novel by Charles Portis) is how much of a straight Western it really is. Those expecting some kind of jazzy, post-modern riff on the genre by the folks who brought us ‘Fargo‘ and ‘No Country for Old Men‘ (both, it could be argued, are their own kind of Westerns), as well as even-weirder fare like ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘Burn After Reading‘, are going to be bitterly disappointed. Or pleasantly surprised. One of the two, for sure.
Anyone who has had the misfortune of seeing the original ‘True Grit‘ (for which John Wayne won an Oscar, if you can wrap your mind around that) are encouraged to just shuffle all of that nonsense out of your brain. This is a more straightforward adaptation of the novel on which it was based. The cutesiness of the girl, the relative stiffness of Wayne’s performance, and the banality of that film’s visual palette have all been replaced, intensified, and updated.
Taking over John Wayne’s iconic performance (and eye-patch) is The Dude himself, Jeff Bridges. The grizzled, drunken, morally ambiguous U.S. Marshal (known for shooting subjects more so than arresting them) is hired by a young girl (played by Hailee Steinfeld) to track down the man who murdered her father. A Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) gets involved because the same killer (Josh Brolin) killed a senator in Texas. So he wants the man for himself. The trio make an unlikely bounty hunting team as they venture forth into wild, Indian-run territory, and have skirmishes both inside and outside of their bizarro family unit.
Again, what’s so striking about this film is how straight-up Western-y it is. Everything from Carter Burwell’s amazing score to the wide-open, John Ford vistas conjured up by regular Coen co-conspirator Roger Deakins, have a certain amount of austerity (and, what’s more, sincerity) that is really endearing. The Coens are noted pranksters. (Remember that magazine article they wrote around the time that ‘No Country for Old Men’ was getting so much buzz, about how they had meant to cast Josh Brolin’s father in the film?) For them to deliver something this dead-on is kind of miraculous.
What’s even more amazing is the performance by Hailee Steinfeld. This is one of the performances of the year. With any justice, people would be talking about it alongside Annette Bening and Natalie Portman as one of the year’s best and most awards-worthy. The fact that she is a virtual unknown, and can give such a fully dimensional performance, is kind of mind blowing. She’s tenacious, for sure, but also scared and alone. (She takes it upon herself to set this whole thing in motion. The rest of her family are back home grieving more passively.) She’s also funny as hell. You have to be willing to go on this journey because of her, and she does a miraculous job.
Steinfeld also holds her own against the satellite of fine performances by Bridges and Damon and Brolin. These three actors, each with a different, weirdly placed speech impediment, are absolutely peerless. (At this point, that should just be a given.)
‘True Grit’ is probably the Coens’ most out-and-out entertaining movie since ‘No Country for Old Men’ (although the two films are quite different). The audience at the critics’ screening I went to last week was practically on their feet by the time the credits rolled. It’s a movie that asks you to go to some very dark, very bleak places, but rewards you for your courage and conviction with one of the very best films of 2010.