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It takes brass to do a remake of a John Wayne film. It takes even more guts, or perhaps “grit,” to revamp the film for which the iconic movie star won an Academy Award. Yet, with the exception of Wayne’s rightly acclaimed performance, the 1969 True Grit left room for improvement. One would think that a successful and experienced team like brothers Joel and Ethan Coen might have what it takes to build on the original’s strengths and banish its weaknesses.
But the Coens have a history of filling their films with enough darkness to do serious damage to moviegoers. Unfortunately, their version of True Grit gives them the perfect opportunity to continue that track record. Leave it to the Coen brothers to turn an already dark story into a blackout. To be sure, there is plenty of cinematic skill, artistry, and storytelling prowess in this picture—enough to earn the critical acclaim the film has received. Those assets, however, only serve to make True Grit more easily able to beguile viewers into accepting its heavy violence, foul language, and distorted worldview.
The new take on True Grit announces itself as different right away by putting Mattie Ross, in this version a girl of only fourteen, at the center of the story. Where the first film focuses more predominately on U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, Wayne’s role, this remake begins and ends with narration from the grown-up Mattie, who introduces the tale of her youthful quest to kill her father’s murderer. The idea smoldering in the fourteen-year-old girl’s heart is to “avenge” her father’s death. Sometimes, this goal means for Mattie that she will catch Tom Chaney, the murderer, and have him brought to the town of his crime and hanged. At other times, she matter-of-factly states that she intends to shoot Chaney herself.
Mattie recognizes that, even with her rather astounding intelligence, she will need assistance in tracking and capturing (or killing) the escaped Chaney. Enter Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s choice to take her on the manhunt. Mattie tells Rooster that she chose him because she was informed that he had “true grit.” She was actually told that Rooster is the most ruthless of the U. S. Marshalls in the area—a man who doesn’t care whether he brings in criminals alive or dead, often kills them with little or no real provocation, and is overly fond of liquor.
After a good deal of bargaining, arm-twisting, and bribery, Mattie manages to hire Rooster for the job of bringing in Chaney. Mattie’s plans are waylaid, however, with the arrival of LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who is on Chaney’s trail for the murder of a senator. LaBoeuf clashes with Mattie, who wants Chaney to hang specifically for her father’s murder, and Rooster, who dislikes LaBoeuf’s Texas Ranger braggadocio. The conflict between these three, as they must either learn to work together or fail in their quest, provides the backbone of this character-driven story.
Casting and character development, therefore, are even more crucial for the success of this film than some. The filmmakers did well with the choice of Hailiee Steinfeld to play Mattie. Like her character, Steinfeld is unusually gifted for her age and handles being the heart and soul of this film like a seasoned pro.
Matt Damon compliments her well, as he displays his ability to transform himself completely according to the demands of the film role. Despite Damon’s fame from films of contemporary settings, one never doubts for a moment that he is indeed Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, living in the Wild West. As he usually does, Damon also adds layers to his portrayal that make his character a fascinating contrast to the disappointingly straightforward depiction of Rooster.
Jeff Bridges lacks the advantage that Wayne had of naturally being very much like the gruff and tough, aging, yet impressively powerful Marshall. For Bridges, the character of Rooster is evidently a stretch, and the actor’s effort to walk the walk and talk the talk is too obvious in many of his scenes. The exercise to make the lines and appearance authentic also seems to take all of Bridges attention, leading to a rather flat performance of what should have been a compelling character.
Even the strongest performances, however, are not enough to make up for the moral weaknesses of True Grit, which arguably start with the three main characters. None of them provide the heroism, redemption, or other positive values that this film desperately needs to offset its plentiful violence. The days of the unsettled West were brutal, and the Coen brothers apparently want to make sure we’re well aware of the brutality by having us witness as much of it as they can (somewhat) reasonably cram into nearly two hours of film.
Almost every action in the movie seems to involve a measuring of pain for pain or death for death. Whose suffering is worth the “good” person’s gain? Whose death is worth a life? These are the decisions that are all too hastily made by morally shaky characters amid stabbings, dismemberments, hangings, beatings, and shootings galore. For good measure, there’s a heavy helping of profanities and obscenities added to the mix.
Thus, despite the use of a Bible verse to open the film and hymns repeated throughout the musical score, it is not God’s presence that is exemplified in the film itself. Even from Mattie, who deports herself as a believer in God, the story gains little help. She, like the other “good guys,” dishes out mercy and judgment as she sees fit, with no regard to Biblical commands. Yes, Mattie is unusually smart for her age, but there seems to have been a significant gap in her education, as she is ignorant of (or willfully disregards) Scriptural truths. Most noticeably, Mattie’s driving ambition is in direct conflict with God’s admonition that avenging misdeeds is His concern, not man’s.
Mattie’s intention, then, to shoot her father’s killer is a planned act of murder. It is motivated by an evil deed, yes, but is still terribly and tragically wrong. This plot element is particularly misleading to viewers, as every moment of the film is aimed at directing the audience toward sympathy for Mattie. Thanks to the Coen brothers’ skilled storytelling, we are inspired to cheer Mattie on in her quest, identifying with the young girl to the extent that we overlook her many character flaws, and we will not be satisfied until she achieves her goal and is happy. The trouble is that Mattie’s aim is glorified revenge, and she is determined to get it with little care for the periphery killings and suffering that her mission causes like a nightmarish domino effect.
When True Grit begins, one initially assumes Mattie is an innocent victim—a girl whose naiveté is going to be contrasted with the cruelty around her, perhaps even to change for the better the hardened men she meets. What we soon realize is that Mattie is far from innocent and is already well on her way down the depraved road that her traveling companions have paved. One of the first signs that Mattie has a corrupt worldview is her choice of Rooster as her champion. Rather than being put-off by his dissolute, merciless, and callous ways, Mattie cites these very traits as the reason to choose Rooster over a different Marshal who is described as having a greater track-record for bringing in culprits alive (i.e., a record of justice). But Mattie doesn’t want justice, she wants revenge, whatever the cost.
So with Rooster and others, Mattie wields her remarkable intelligence as a weapon to manipulate and have her way, no matter the consequences to those she uses. She is already hardened of heart, rarely bothering with things such as kindness in her commitment to speaking her mind and getting what she wants. LaBoeuf is one of several characters who gets a heavy dose of Mattie’s sharpness, as she swiftly jumps to a harsh and unfair judgment of the Texas Ranger, which causes her to shoot out jibes and criticisms that no one, let alone a young person to her elder, should so rashly unleash.
Mattie doesn’t completely get away with such behavior, as her treatment of LaBoeuf prompts his dark side to emerge, and he beats Mattie in a fit of temper until he is stopped by Rooster. Mattie, however, never seems to connect LaBoeuf’s actions with her own verbal cruelty and negative attitude, so the overly harsh “punishment” does no good at all and leaves Mattie free of personal consequences that might teach her to improve her character.
In Mattie’s defense, she does demonstrate more sympathy, forgiveness, and discomfort in the face of death than Rooster and LaBoeuf. But, these moments are brief and become increasingly rare as the film, and Mattie’s descent into darkness, continues. As a result, True Grit has no positive storyline to save the movie from the abyss. Instead of redemption, there is only the disintegration of a young girl’s morality as she becomes increasingly like her companions and even the murderer she chases.
[SPOILER WARNING] Near the end of this film, Mattie’s plummet hits rock bottom when she confronts and kills Chaney. It’s true that Chaney had just knocked LaBoeuf unconscious and that he would likely try to attack Mattie as he already had once before. However, considering that the entire film centers on Mattie’s quest to see Chaney dead, premeditated murder is a far more accurate assessment of her act than self-defense. In the morally deadly twist of revenge tales, we’re supposed to be happy that Mattie has achieved her goal, despite the fact that we have just watched the evolution of a murderer.
The beauty of the cinematography, the historical accuracy of costuming, the standout direction and acting—all of these elements only add to the heavy burden one feels at the end of this film. They add a disturbing realism to the darkest moments and a weighty disappointment that such artistic gifts—like Mattie’s intelligence, love for her father, and compassion for her friends—are drowned in a gory deluge of blood and vengeance. The only “grit” here is not courage, but rather the grit that comes from getting dirty, the kind that won’t easily wash off.
Check out these movies instead:
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount Pictures, 1962)
Love Comes Softly (Alpine Medien Productions, 2003)
The Apple Dumpling Gang (Walt Disney, 1975)