The “one-eyed fat man” hired by a 14-year-old girl to hunt down her father's killer, was a role made famous by John Wayne in 1969's True Grit, adapted from the novel by Charles Portis. Now, over 30 years later, Joel and Ethan Coen have taken it upon themselves to remake the classic, from a script written by them. They prefer to call it a (re-)adaptation of the novel, rather than a remake of the film.
The Coens' True Grit is a Western in every sense of the word — not really a surprise, as they are known for their faithfulness to the genres they take on. From the grizzled old-timers hanging about dusty streets to the pretty impenetrable — be warned — slang of the time, the 19th-century American frontier made famous by the likes of Wayne is perfectly captured.
And what of the Coens' trademark sense of irony? You realise as you watch the film that it's completely inbuilt into the larger-than-life characters and plot; perhaps that's why True Grit fits like a glove on the Coens' directorial hands. Even then, True Grit, the 2010 version, might have felt like one of those redundant Hollywood exercises — i.e., yet another remake of something that was pretty darn good in the first place — were it not for the breathtaking performance at its centre.
Young Hailee Steinfeld's film debut as the bloodthirsty but morally correct, fearless but extremely uptight 14-year-old Mattie Ross is a real treat to watch. Mattie travels from her Yell County home to Fort Smith, Arkansas with the principle aim of vengeance — and the settlement of some monetary transactions on the side. Her father has been killed by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has since vanished into Indian country; Mattie wants to hire a United States Marshall of “true grit” to track him down.
Very little discourages her from her goal — she takes it all in her stride, whether viewing brutal public hangings or tracking her deputy US Marshall of choice, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in another Oscar-nominated role) to a lavatory. You have to laugh at the blackly comic scenarios she — unintentionally — generates. You, of course, never laugh at her; it would take a person of far greater steel than you or I to dare make fun of the ferocious and focussed ball of energy that is Mattie.
She wins the reluctant admiration of Cogburn who takes on her case for a fee but refuses to let Mattie join him on the chase. Unsurprisingly, Mattie has her way. Together they leave civilisation behind and go deeper into the wild lands — beautifully filmed by Roger Deakins — that harbour Chaney and other ruffians. A part-time friend/foe on their journey, who also wants to capture Chaney, is the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf — Matt Damon displaying formidable moustaches and a surprisingly light touch in playing his flamboyant character.
But essentially this is Mattie's story. Though there's a lot of cussing, fighting, shooting and killing by all the men around her, you are never in any doubt as to whom the title of the movie really describes.
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, Matt Damon
Storyline: A sturdy 14-year-old hires a deputy US Marshall to find her father's killer.
Bottomline: Straight-shooting Western served up with a twist of Coen irony