True Grit is the Coen Brothers’ remake of the Henry Hathaway film that starred John Wayne. I haven’t seen the earlier film, but I have read the Charles Portis novel that it is based on. Although I liked the novel’s narrative voice, I ultimately found it disappointing. I thought Portis could have done a lot more with the characters and the situation than he did. It ends up being a very conventional Western novel.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a fourteen-year-old girl living in Arkansas during the 1870’s. When her father is shot to death by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), she swears to get revenge. With some difficulty, she persuades Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a U.S. marshal with a sinister past, to pursue Chaney with her. They are joined by a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is after Chaney for a separate murder. They follow Cheney into Choctaw Territory, where he has joined an outlaw band led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).
The Coen Brothers have boasted that their film is faithful to Portis’s novel. In fact, they have taken enormous liberties with it. In the film, both Mattie and LaBoeuf speak a heavily stilted English. This is not how these characters talk in the book. I suppose the Coen Brothers thought this was funny; I just found it annoying. Also, we are expected to believe that contractions weren’t yet invented in the 1870’s. I lost count of how many times I heard someone begin a sentence with “Let us…”
Some of the changes are more troubling. In the novel, there is a Native American sheriff who helps Cogburn, LaBouef and Mattie at one point. This character has been completely written out of the movie. (The novel also has a Mexican character who is completely written out of the script.) In the film, Cogburn kicks two Native American boys who are tormenting a mule. If I remember correctly, in the novel the boys are white. Also, there is a scene in the novel of a public hanging. A Native American man is allowed to make a short speech before he is hanged. In the movie, he is dropped through the trap as he starts to speak. (There was some nervous laughter from the audience at this.) Considering that there are so few Westerns that present Native Americans in a positive light, one can only wonder why the Coens made these changes.
I found the movie moderately entertaining, in spite of the cutesy fake Shakespearean English and the problematic politics. Jeff Bridges is appropriately gruff as Cogburn, though at this point in his career he could probably play a gruff character in his sleep. Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon do the best they can with their awful lines. It could have been a much better film.