True Grit * * *

Genre: Western

Directors: Ethan & Joel Coen

Writers: Ethan & Joel Coen, based on the novel of the same name by Charles Portis

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

Running Length: 110 minutes

Synopsis: Set in the Old West around the end of the 19th century, 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is out to seek vengeance for her murdered father. The murderer is a man called Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who has fled into Indian territory after committing the crime. As the local law enforcement is no help, Mattie instead seeks out the help of a bounty hunter Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a tough drunkard who’s supposed to be at the top of his game. Although initially disinterested in the chase, Cogburn has a change of heart when Mattie offers a handsome reward. Also accompanying Mattie and Cogburn is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who is hunting Chaney for the assassination of a Senator. A curious camaraderie forms between the trio, and the tough journey tests their mettle, especially for Mattie.

Review: True Grit sticks so true to the Western formula that it’s almost shocking that the usually quirky, offbeat Coen Brothers are behind the film. Although this is ostensibly a remake of the 1969 film starring the iconic John Wayne, this version by the Coens should more accurately be considered as a standalone interpretation of the Charles Portis novel. With a deft mix of comedy, character study and good old hardcore Western action, True Grit is one of the best Western films in recent years (in fact probably the best since Unforgiven), but remains a tough sell to audiences who are not fans of the genre.

There are a number of good performances to be found in True Grit. Jeff Bridges wisely chooses not to emulate John Wayne’s (Oscar winning) performance in the 1969 film, but actually puts across a better, more nuanced performance than what Wayne managed to achieve. There are still traces of Wayne’s Cogburn in Bridges’ portrayal, but these are kept to a minimum and it never feels like a facsimile. However, it is unlikely that Jeff Bridge’s Oscar nomination this year will lead to a win. Matt Damon is also understatedly effective as LaBoeuf, and apart from Mattie is probably the next most likeable character in the film.

However, the true standout is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who delivers the difficult dialogue with ease, and with a very believable, fiercely committed portrayal, Steinfeld’s Mattie easily becomes the emotional centre of the film. It’s far easier to be vested in this Mattie’s outcome than in the original film, as Kim Darby’s performance and role was eclipsed by John Wayne’s star power.   

Like many Westerns, the pacing of True Grit is slow and deliberate. Audiences who are able to settle into the groove of the movie will find themselves enjoying a film with a strong plot and amazing aesthetics (Roger Deakins’ cinematography is nothing short of flawless).  However, there’s a good reason why Westerns have fallen out of favour even amongst directors, and the bottom line is that most cinemagoers simply aren’t patient enough for slow burn movies like this one.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars) 

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