Stars Shine in the Inspired Remake of “True Grit”

Lorey Sebastian/Courtesy Paramount Pictures/MCT

Richard Duboc

Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross in Paramount Pictures "True Grit."

I think everybody has a soft spot for an original that is done right.

For multiple generations of movie buffs, 1969’s “True Grit” staring John Wayne and Kim Darby is a timeless classic. An aging 62-year-old Wayne is unforgettable as Rooster Cogburn, an over-the-hill U.S. Marshal who takes on his last mission.

However, the times they-are-a-changing. The Coen brothers update the 2010 adaptation for the modern world with an emphasis on stripped-down feature performances and a close adherence to the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis.

Still relatively fresh from his Oscar-winning performance in last year’s Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges constructs a character eerily similar to the protagonist Bad Blake. At no detriment to the veteran actor who is at the top of his career, Bridge’s unofficial reprisal is perfectly appropriate. A hard-drinking country music star is the modern equivalent of the 19th-century lawman, so why should Bridge’s methodology have to be any different? Sometimes, badass needs no explanation.

Now, as Bridges stands in the shadow of prototypical Cold War leading man John Wayne, who was for all purposes a Los Angeles cowboy. Wayne was known to masterfully ride horses and shoot Budweiser cans out of the sky, following decades of portraying a cowboy on both the silver and Technicolor screen.

The Coen brothers (directors Joel David and Ethan Jesse Coen) were able to bring forth a modern interpretation of the story which would have been almost impossible in 1969, most notably the breakthrough performance of now 14-year-old actress Hailee Steinfeld. The director’s decision to cast Steinfeld to play the role of Mattie Ross represented the strict interpretation to the novel, unlike the 1969 adaptation that featured Kim Darby, who was at least well into her twenties. It is also in accordance to the history of the American West where women, even girls, had to be tough and often self-supportive.

Despite Bridge’s trademark jackal-toothed howle, the performances were delicate and sublime as the characters traveled through the badlands of the post-Civil War wilderness. In fact, the Ozark mountains in Arkansas are transformed into the Mediterranean Sea at the time of Homer’s Odyssey, where the character’s fate are often interwoven into the landscape.

In all actuality, the film depends on Steinfeld’s lead perfomance, which guides the entire storyline. This was aided by the fact that Matt Damon’s command of the earnest Texas Ranger, La Boeuf is far superior to that of 1960s and 1970s country music heartthrob Glen Campbell in the 1969 version.

“True Grit” adheres, along with last year’s blockbuster Robin Hood, to the new policy of the Motion Picture Association of America to allow PG-13 movies to show more violence. However, it is somehow less gritty than the 1969 original, which presented the more classic sensibilities of film noir.

The harsh realities of life and the dangers that Mattie Ross must face are somehow completely altered when experienced by a child, barely within her teenage years. Maybe the modern moviegoer is so desensitized, that they need the perspective of a child to shock themselves out of complacency, even though, Steinfeld’s performance makes the viewer forget they are watching a child.
With this, the Coen brothers are trying to pioneer their own film renaissance which now spans from the cult classic “The Big Lebowski” and to the recent and critically acclaimed “No Country for Old Men.”

Without giving too much away, I must warn that the Coens end the film in their typically macabre and dissatisfying way. However, they do stick to many timeless truisms that do justice to the entire Western genre, which has not been able to improve upon itself since the archetypal spaghetti westerns of the 1960’s.

Counting his dual roles in Walt Disney’s “Tron: Legacy,” Bridges has had three leading roles this past holiday season. Bridges, who is bolstered by the inspired breakout performance of Steinfeld and Damon’s top billing, may have struck Oscar gold, even if the film does not strike gold at the box office.

More impressively, “True Grit” will expose the Western genre to a new generation of moviegoers who did not grow up relating to the image of the cowboy riding of into the sunset. However, just like the understated nature of the film, “True Grit” is not likely nor is it designed to reinvigorate a new Gilded Age of Hollywood’s Western era.

The highest compliment I can bestow on the film is that my grandfather, who is in his 80s, and has watched the original “True Grit” dozens of times with his aging father in 1969, enjoyed the film. He, like all Americans, don’t want to watch as his beloved films are lost in the translation of many long years. These days, Hollywood remakes often unleash an unwanted revision of history that act as painful reminders to those who can remember the originals just how much times have changed.

“True Grit” proves that thoughtful reprisal can actually lead to movie magic, especially with an all-star cast to boot.