The Dude Does The Duke
Being a fan of the western genre you could say I am as stubborn as some of the characters which have filled the genre over the years and it is why when a few years back the Coen brothers decided to remake "True Grit" I was annoyed. Now if John Wayne's "True Grit" had been a bad movie I could have understood but it is one of the best westerns from the past and to remake it seemed so wrong. In fairness having watched the Coen brothers version of "True Grit" I am impressed, not impressed enough to say it is better that Wayne's version but enough to say it is nearly as good as. It has issues but none which spoil it too much and the Coen's have basically just given it a modern make over, using current styling to retell the story in a way modern audiences will enjoy.
Following the murder of her father, 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) heads to Fort Smith to arrange for her father's body to be sent home, pick up his belongings and attending to some business. And by business she wants to hire a man to help her track down her father's murderer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin - American Gangster) so she can have her revenge. Pointed in the direction of Marshal Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges - Crazy Heart) she hires the drunken old lawman because he is the best at what he does although he's not that impressed at having a 14 year old girl on the trail with him. And neither is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon - Invictus), a Texas Ranger who is also hunting down Chaney for another crime.
Now I don't know whether the Coen's version of "True Grit" should be called a remake for the simple reason it is their version of Charles Portis's story, they wrote the screenplay and whilst certain elements mirror those of the John Wayne version in reality it is just an interpretation of Portis's story. As such for the most we have the same story with young Mattie wanting to hire Marshal Rooster Cogburn to hunt down Tom Chaney for the murder of her father, Texas Ranger LaBoeuf is also after Chaney and both are initially not too keen on having a 14 year old girl joining them. There are differences, there is an extra element to the end which gives the story closure and various scenes which are shared such as the iconic horse reigns in the mouth finale have a slight different feel.
But the most significant difference is that the Coen's version of "True Grit" is as much if not more interested in focusing on the character of Mattie than those of Cogburn and Laboeuf. The opening which sees her not only show up to arrange for her father's body to return home but to hire Cogburn to hunt Chaney down feels longer than in the original and the reason being is that it is establishing Mattie's character. And what a wonderful character she is because as a 14 year old she is so determined and confident that she is quite formidable dealing with older men who think they can out smart her because she is a young girl. As such Hailee Steinfeld does a really terrific job of delivering this character and she continues throughout the movie, not at all in awe of working with such talents as Jeff bridges and Matt Damon.
Once Mattie's character has truly been established we then watch for the most is a like for like storyline as Cogburn, Mattie and LaBoeuf go after Chaney. And where you could say that the original "True Grit" was a little bloated the Coen brother's have shown restraint so whilst we still have the iconic finale as Cogburn does battle with the reigns gripped between his teeth, it is much shorter and sharper and frankly more believable. It is because of this restraint and a good dose of modern styling and atmosphere that this is a good update of the original for new audiences who for some reason hate old movies.
But it has issues and ironically those issues are to do with the way both Cogburn and LaBoeuf are played. Now Jeff Bridges is a great actor and his version of Cogburn is certainly a memorable character, but trying to give him the sound of an old drunk makes him sound like Gabby Hayes and it sounds so wrong. Matt Damon also has an issue with how LaBoeuf sounds but that comes from a scene in this version which isn't in the original, I don't understand the importance of the scene and the actual tone of it feels wrong as it seems like it wants to be funny but isn't. I know I am being vague but to explain more would be to spoil something but it does cause an issue with Damon's character.
What this all boils down to is that the Coen's version of "True Grit" is a surprisingly good movie. They have done a good job of telling Portis's story in a way that modern audiences will enjoy whilst maintaining the heart. It's by no means perfect and for me is not better than John Wayne's "True Grit" but it is a good example of how to make a modern western.