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True Grit (2010)

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Like I said before in my critique of True Grit with John Wayne, I was not very familiar with the story despite living for half of my life in the one iconic location where it was shot. Pretty sad.

However – and this was long before I read the book and saw the movie – I did get a taste of that story, and a pretty good idea of it, when my family and I saw the new True Grit, with Jeff Bridges, in theaters.

I remembered not only how stylized it was, not to mention how grizzly it was, but also that it left me blown away. After watching it again just recently, does it still hold up? Well, I can say without a shred of a doubt that the new True Grit was a powerhouse of ideals and action in the Wild West. And coming from someone who just read the book and watched the John Wayne movie prior to revisiting this, that’s no small feat!

For the sake of insight, here’s the story: a girl named Mattie Ross ventured out into the Indian Territories with a ruthless US marshal named Rooster Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf in search of a rogue runaway, Tom Chaney, who previously murdered her father in cold blood.

The first thing I ought to congratulate this film for is its accomplishment in its visual storytelling styles. This is the Coen Brothers of Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? writing and directing this picture, and it is just dripping with their dark, quirky sense of humor and somewhat murky colors.

The funny thing is, the original True Grit created a romanticized portrait of the Wild West. However, this True Grit showed a more uncompromising, warts-and-all portrait of the Wild West. We see some of the more civilized Native Americans being horsed around a little, even if it was all for the sake of comedy – typical of what’s expected from the Coen Brothers – and the murders shown onscreen were portrayed in bloodier, more graphic detail.

That’s not to say, though, that the scenery wasn’t a sight to behold. Some of the shots of the western landscapes were just beautiful, and their elongated focus really let you feel like you were trotting along with Mattie, Rooster and LaBoeuf as they ventured further and further into the more uncivilized parts of the Indian Territories.

The music was also very nice. It had a laid-back quality that gave it a sense of softness, along with a more aggressive crescendo when things were either at their most dire or at their most triumphant. In both cases, of course, they were orchestrated in ways that left you feeling like you were transported to the Wild West itself.

And, before I forget, another aspect of the movie that deserves a standing ovation is the acting. The original True Grit had a hefty lineup of actors whose performances made the film the classic that it was, with John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, the works. The acting from this True Grit, however, was just superb, worthy as successors of the original, and dare I say it, most of it may have knocked the acting from the original out of the water.

Let’s start with Jeff Bridges. John Wayne was already a fine actor to portray Rooster Cogburn, with his cocky attitude, incompetent demeanor, and ruthless exertion in battle. Jeff Bridges, however, went so out there with the incompetence of his character, that in a good way, he’d leave viewers like me in as much disbelief over it as Mattie herself was. Half the time, you’d think he had no idea what he was talking about, and that he was just wasting himself away by being the constant drunkard that he was and talking the talk more than he walked the walk. At the same time, however, Bridge’s voice also carried a rough tenor that hinted at the ruthless interior that Mattie sought in him. So at that point, whenever he was being sleazy, you’d be left begging for his inner warrior to break free and take the reins in the face of adversity. To put it short, Jeff Bridges hit all the right notes in his own unique way. It actually baffles me that he never won the Oscar for Best Actor for playing this character like John Wayne did.

While I liked Kim Darby for giving her character her tough-as-nails attitude in the original movie, the downside was that it was all I remembered Mattie Ross as being: just plainly stubborn and resilient. Hailee Steinfeld, however, was a much better fit. Not only was she the right age to portray Mattie, clocking in at about 13 or 14 years of age at the time, but she let her character express herself from all angles. By that, I mean that Mattie was shown as being far more than just stubborn and resilient. She was also frightened, she was sentimental, she was negotiable, she attempted to find common ground between two opposing forces. Or, to put it another way, Steinfeld gave her character the qualities that make a complex and equally sympathetic character. At first, I was shocked a long time ago to see Steinfeld get a nomination at the Oscars for Best Supporting Actress for her role in this movie. But watching it again, I’m glad she did. She earned it.

When I learned that Matt Damon was the one who portrayed LaBoeuf in this movie, I was interested to see how this would have played out. I mean, he sort of resembled how I pictured LaBoeuf as I read the book. As LaBoeuf, Damon still resembled parts of my interpretation of him, but he did far more than that. His performance, not to mention LaBoeuf’s fancy Texan attire, added a sense of charisma as well as sternness to his character, making him more rounded, competent, and levelheaded. These last two were especially crucial because LaBoeuf was part of high authority as a Texas Ranger. So because of that, between the three interpretations of his character – the book, the ‘69 movie, and this one – this one was hands-down the most interesting one I’ve ever seen, period. Also, it made his quarrels with Cogburn carry a more Odd-Couple-esque feel to them; they were made more hilarious in some parts, and also more uneasy in others.

Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney? This one was where I was almost at a loss for words. Now, Jeff Corey really did a nice job giving Tom his intimidation, his scraggly appearance, and his cowardly personality. Of course, I also kept thinking that he was a bit fancy, and that his cowardly nature made him a skosh whiny at times. Josh Brolin, however, gave him the intimidation, his scraggly appearance and...something else. This Tom Chaney felt more like a commoner, which made sense, since he was carried into the Ross household when he was at his most destitute. At the same time, Brolin’s idea of scraggliness for his character made him look more threatening and a more worthy target in the eyes of Mattie. He did show his cowardly side from time to time, but it was more or less portrayed with annoyance instead of with whines. So ultimately, this makes Josh Brolin's performance feel more like a good equal to Jeff Corey‘s performance. They were both good for different reasons, and not one of their Tom Chaneys was better than the other.

All the other actors did a nice job, too, including Dakin Matthews as Colonel Stonehill, Domhnall Gleeson and Paul Rae as Moon and Quincy, respectively, and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper (though I think I like Robert Duvall‘s performance more for showcasing more dignity to his character). Long story short, there was absolutely no bad performance to be found in this movie.

I’ll admit, after pinpointing the changes made to IT in both the miniseries and the movies, I might as well do the same for True Grit with a top 10 list of changes from the book that I caught.

  1. Mattie's mother never accompanied her or their family friend, Yarnell Poindexter, to Fort Smith to reclaim Frank Ross' body.

  2. Mattie did attempt to meet up with Cogburn before seeing him at the Courthouse...while he was in an outhouse.

  3. Mattie paid only one visit to Cogburn before venturing out into the Indian Territories instead of two.

  4. The quarrel between Cogburn, LeBeouf, and Mattie over whether or not she should tag along with them was saved for the first part of their adventure together.

  5. Unlike in the book or the '69 movie, LeBoeuf wasn't even with Cogburn or Mattie half the time; noticeably, he wasn't present with them at Moon and Quincy's house until Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang arrived.

  6. When the three of them left Moon and Quincy's house, they left the corpses of Moon, Quincy, and one of Ned Pepper's band members behind; they never carried the corpses with them nor wandered to McAllister's, unlike in the book or the '69 movie.

  7. Once Mattie shot Tom Chaney before stumbling into the snake pit behind her, it killed him on the spot; he stumbled over the edge of the cliff instead of living long enough to taunt Mattie even further before being shot dead by Cogburn.

  8. Also, unlike the book or the '69 movie, where Blackie, Mattie's horse, succumbed to his wounds and rode himself to death carrying Cogburn and the snake-bitten Mattie on his back, here, he came close to dying from his wounds and from riding too long before being put down by Cogburn.

  9. We never see Mattie's lawyer, Dagget, anywhere in the movie. Instead, we hear him in voiceover, provided by JK Simmons, reading his letter to Mattie about Stonehill. Honestly, his voice carried a certain baritone to him that reminded me of how I pictured him to look and sound like as I read the book: strong, manly, and reasonable.

  10. Finally, two new scenes were added exclusively to the movie, both of them occuring back-to-back before the Moon and Quincy incident: – Cogburn and Mattie saw a corpse hanging from high up in a tree. They released him, but didn't recognize him, so they let a passerby take off with the corpse in tow. – Later on, the two of them waited in a desolate spot to see if LaBeouf would return after hearing a gunshot from a distance. A man with some extra horses and wearing a bearskin came over instead.

In spite of all the changes I mentioned here, however, this version of True Grit felt closer in spirt and contextually to the book than the '69 movie did.

Another thing about the presentation of the story that I found interesting was that it was deemed as a remake of the '69 movie, when really, the only thing it shared in common with that movie was the source material they were both made off of. This is similar to how the source material of IT was all that the miniseries and the movies shared in common. But that's the beauty of providing a different take on a classic story when done properly: with the right creative team, the right actors, and the right focus, a remake, reimagining, or reboot, whichever one it could be, can play its own cards on the story with some faithfulness to it, as well as some appropriate deviations and stylistic changes, to create something that'd potentially be worthy of the source material and establish itself as its own unique thing.

Something that, say, the Lion King remake heavily misunderstood.

But that's beside the point. What is the point is that the Coen Brothers did a fantastic job of taking a classic Western story that already had a classic movie made off of it and upgrading it into a unique Western experience that is purely theirs. The new True Grit thrived with its different point of view, its faithfulness to the book, pitch-perfect acting all around, and – go figure! – true grit. Never mind that it's a remake, it is a modern masterpiece, and for all the right reasons.

Additional Thoughts

As I stand by and reflect on the personal creative touches the Coen Brothers added to True Grit, I also noticed that Fort Smith was very nicely established. It sported a late-19th-century feel, making it look like an Old West town and adding to its time period authenticity. I also caught forests and what looked like the Arkansas River surrounding the area, too, which in turn added to its geographical authenticity. So, my deepest apologies, Ridgway, Colorado, but this Fort Smith feels more like Fort Smith.

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