(2010) Western (Paramount) Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Jarlath Conroy, Elizabeth Marvel, Leon Russom, Ed Corbin, Candyce Hinkle, Bruce Green, Peter Leung, Don Pirl. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
When you remake a movie that most would consider a classic, you had better know what you’re about. Not only must you retain the essence of the original, you need to add something significant to it; otherwise, what’s the point?
Maddie Ross (Steinfeld) has come to Ft. Smith, Arkansas from her farm in Yell County. Her father has been brutally gunned down by a hired hand, Tom Chaney (Brolin). Nobody in Ft. Smith seems particularly interested in pursuing Chaney who has fled into the Indian territories. The Sherriff (Russom) has no authority there and recommends a U.S. Marshal. There are several choices, but the Sherriff recommends Rooster Cogburn (Bridges).
Mattie tries to track down the Marshal but is unsuccessful at first. He’s obviously drunk and refuses to come out of the outhouse – and it’s not as if she’s about to go in after him. In the meantime she goes to Col. Stonehill (Matthews) to settle her father’s affairs with him. He’s a horse trader who meets his match in the 14-year-old girl. When after being bested in the first session she means to initiate a second, he moans “Oh God we’re not going to haggle, are we?” He knows a superior negotiator when he sees one.
Finally when she meets Marshall Cogburn he is at first unimpressed but when Mattie shows up with $50 he takes her a mite more seriously. She insists on accompanying him, not trusting him to do what he says he will. He is reluctant to allow it but at last gives in.
However, Mattie isn’t the only one looking for Chaney. There’s a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (Damon) who wants to collect the reward for a murdered State Senator and has been tracking Chaney (who was called Chelmsford in Texas) for months. He entreats Mattie to go home but she is obstinate. This won’t be the first time she displays that trait.
She wakes up to discover that Cogburn has already left. Nonplussed, Mattie follows on her pony Little Blackie who turns out to be a helluva horse. She is surprised to discover that LaBoeuf has thrown in with Cogburn but after LaBoeuf takes a switch to Mattie that partnership disintegrates. Truth be told, Cogburn admires the determined young girl deep down.
Cogburn believes that Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper (Pepper, ironically enough) who is an outlaw operating out of the territories. He goes in search of information to confirm it and winds up deep in the Indian Territories, going up against hardened outlaws…and the frailty of his employer…of himself.
It is inevitable that the new version will be compared to the old. Let’s first establish that Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne. Quite intelligently, Bridges doesn’t even attempt to be Wayne. His Rooster Cogburn is allegedly closer to the character in the Charles Portis book both films are based on (I can’t say for certain because I haven’t read it). He’s a drunken reprobate with a past that for one or two wrong turns may have turned out just like Chaney or Pepper. He dances just this side of the angels and has one foot on the side of the devils.
This isn’t a typical Coen Brothers movie. Gone are the quirky characters, the off-kilter sense of humor that pervades. In that sense, this is more like No Country for Old Men; the storytelling is more linear, more direct. The Coens are very particular about the language they use; the language here is more authentic than the original True Grit. In that sense, again this is closer to the Portis novel which was known for utilizing authentic idioms of the era. The 1969 movie was made for audiences of that time who weren’t looking so much for authenticity as much as adventure, and to a certain degree, of the Duke although by that time he had fallen out of favor to a large extent, having grown old and less imposing than he once was; he was also battling cancer at the time which was less known.
Wayne and Bridges aside, this is Mattie’s story and once again we are left to compare Kim Darby, 20 when she filmed the 1969 movie and Steinfeld, 13 when she filmed this one. Darby is spunkier than anything and while she talks like a bookkeeper, she is less convincing as a 14 year old. Certainly Steinfeld gets points in that regard and she has the inner strength that the character possesses, as well as the intelligence and fortitude. She also has the singularity of focus; Steinfeld certainly is impressive in communicating all these things. She is a gifted young actress who may very well get a Best Actress Oscar nomination this February.
Damon plays the Texas Ranger role that Glen Campbell played and here is where this movie gets better. Damon gives the Ranger much more depth than Campbell was able to deliver and to be fair Campbell was more or less stunt casting. Damon makes the Ranger much more dangerous than the Campbell version which was more or less comic relief. You can believe that LaBoeuf is quite capable of killing from distance and efficiently here.
One of the issues I have here is the ending and this is where the filmmakers teach us a valuable lesson; not everything that is in the book is necessarily as good as the first movie. This movie adds the epilogue that was in the book, showing Mattie 25 years later (Marvel) but the coda is a bit anti-climactic and really adds nothing to the story.
However, this really is a much different movie than the first one and in some ways judging one against the other isn’t real fair but is necessary – after all, the first won the Duke an Oscar and is a bit of a standard among westerns. This has already become the largest-grossing movie in the Coen Brothers 20 year career and comes about it honestly, without a 3D or IMAX upcharge to artificially inflate the numbers. This is serious entertainment and proof positive that even though Westerns are no longer a guaranteed box office draw that when done right they can still be big hits. This is deserving of the success and is one of the must-sees of the holiday season.
REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography adds to strong performances throughout. While Bridges is no Duke, he holds his own. Damon makes a great LaBoeuf.
REASONS TO STAY: While it is very good in its own right, this is still not as good as the John Wayne version. Much grittier than the original, sometimes too gritty in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, a few disturbing images and some peril for 14-year-old Mattie.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Bridges and Brolin have portrayed Wild Bill Hickock, whose Wild West Show is the setting for the movie’s epilogue.
HOME OR THEATER: If you watch it at home at least you can get up and leave without bothering anybody.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
TOMORROW: Little Fockers