Directors: Joel Cohen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin
Synopsis: Based on a novel by Charles Portis, this film is the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Stenifeld), who seeks to track down the murderer of her father, Tom Chaney (Brolin), and have justice be done upon him. She sets off alone to hire “Rooster” Cogburn, a Marshall that is known to have “true grit”. Cogburn refuses to have her along on the hunt, but Mattie has a way od getting her own way. They are joined and aided by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Damon), whom also seeks Chaney for a different crime.
Though sharing a name and basic plot with the John Wayne vehicle that won him his only Oscar, all reports indicate that this is a very different beast. Having never seen this original film, nor read the source novel by Charles Portis, my research (courtesy of the Australian Empire magazine) informs me that this remake takes some of the focus off of Rooster Cogburn, and, like the novel, focusses more on Mattie Ross. From a purely cinematic stand-point, I can comment that this was a wise choice, as Mattie’s story is what drives the entire plot.
In many ways, Steinfeld is the lead actor in this film, and impressive position for a young girl to be in, given the calibre of her directors, as well as the calibre of her co-stars. She holds herself well next to all of them, and as a result we have a slightly subversive Western film that very much feels very much like a Coen film. Steinfeld is superb, and watching the performance it is immediately clear why she received so many accolades for this role. She is strong, determined, and walks a fine line with the character the avoids it from swinging into the slightly precocious realm, a mistake many child actors seem to make (are you listening Jake Lloyd??).
In reality, Bridges and Damon both have to work to make their characters memorable in comparison, and they both succeed. Bridges is a truly fine actor, with a wide range that is sadly only now being recognised. His character is grizzled and confident, yet flawed. When these flaws are highlighted, Bridges performance of bravado to hide his insecurities is perfectly balanced, both embarrassing and heart-breaking, without compromising the hard-edged Marshall that had been established earlier in the film. Damon’s LaBoeuf is perhaps more clearly flawed and insecure, a good role to see Damon play again after the strength of his performance in his Bourne movies. He also maintains a fine balance, showing his character to be honourable despite his flaws.
I am now curious to read the novel that crafted such a wonderful story, as I am just as curious o see how that material was altered for the Wayne version of the story. A western that entertains me is a rare beast, and as such, seeing this one has succeeded where many other have failed for me, I am curious to examine the film’s history to further appreciate the nuances that have made such a difference in this case.
4 stars out of 5