Film Review: True Grit

Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of the 1969 western True Grit is handsome but pointless. Henry Hathaway’s original still holds up well, therefore this new version offers little to merit its existence.

After her father his murdered by criminal Tom Chaney, young Mattie Ross wants the man brought to justice. She hires Rooster Cogburn, a US marshal with a fierce reputation, on the provision she can accompany him on his mission. Joining them is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who wants to capture Chaney in order to receive a hefty reward…

True Grit is a straightforward tale of revenge. What makes the film enjoyable is good writing and great characters. Nevertheless, the film loses its way in the middle section, when it ambles instead of continuing the momentum that had been building in the first third. True Grit recovers by the climax, providing a action-packed conclusion.

Joel and Ethan Coen use a lot of the dialogue from the original film, based on Charles Portis’ novel. Much of the humour from the original film is also present here. There are few changes to the narrative from the 1969 True Grit. The Coen brothers have included an epilogue to conclude proceedings. This adds very little to the overall film, the end of the action would have sufficed as an appropriate conclusion.

Cogburn, LeBoeuf and Mattie are at the very heart of True Grit. Whilst Cogburn brings much of the humour and action, it is the determined Mattie who really defines the film. For the teenage girl, the mission is life changing; it is Mattie’s unfailing determination that proves that she has ‘true grit’. LaBoeuf, meanwhile, is a more ambivalent character in this version. Whereas LeBoeuf was more of a straightforward good guy in the 1969 film, the Coens’ update casts his motives in an ambiguous light.

The highlight of True Grit is its cinematography. Director of photography Roger Deakins has captured some beautiful imagery of the landscapes. The film has an authentic feel to it; the locations and sets appear natural despite the 1880 setting. The music accompanies the visuals well, although the Coen brothers have missed a trick by not including the gloriously outdated theme from the 1969 version.

Jeff Bridges is excellent as Rooster Cogburn. Bridges wisely eschews imitating John Wayne; making the character his own whilst retaining the humour of his persona. Matt Damon is well cast as LaBoeuf, although his role is diminished from the original film. Hailee Steinfeld gives a terrific performance as Mattie, matching Kim Darby’s pluck despite her young age.

True Grit is a well-executed film, but ultimately an unnecessary one. It is curious that Joel and Ethan Coen decided to remake the film without many significant changes. It is enjoyable, but does not surpass the 1969 version in quality or entertainment value.