“People do not give it credence that a young girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood. But it did happen.”
Just like the book that both this and the 1969 John Wayne film were taken from, the film opens with the sad story of a young girl who has come to Fort Smith to see that justice is done for her father. The words were written by Charlie Portis, a journalist who went on to write a truly great American novel: True Grit.
“I was just 14 years of age when a coward by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down and robbed him of his life and his horse and two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Chaney was a hired man, and Papa had taken him in up to Fort Smith to help lead back a string of mustang ponies he’d bought in town.”
The novel was written in 1968, and just one year later it would become a starring vehicle for the legendary John Wayne. The movie became a classic and somewhat put the book into its shadow. Now over 40 years later the material has come alive once again in the capable hands of the Cohen Brothers. It’s actually quite remarkable that the brothers hadn’t done a Western before. Their style has always belonged to that genre. Take one look at No Country For Old Men, and you will see a decidedly Western attitude in that modern tale.
“Chaney had fallen to drink and cards and lost all of his money. He got it into his head he was being cheated and went down to the boarding house for his Henry rifle. When Papa tried to intervene, Chaney shot him. Chaney fled. He could have walked his horse, for not a soul in that city could be bothered to give chase. No doubt, Chaney fancied himself scot-free. But he was wrong.”
Mattie (Steinfeld) comes to Fort Smith to handle the final arrangements and business of her father. Her grieving mother and two young siblings remain behind in Arkansas. She discovers that there isn’t much interest in tracking down Tom Chaney (Brolin) who killed her father. She makes what money she can from her father’s processions, driving quite a hard bargain with promises of legal entanglements, and tries to hire Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) whom she heard has “true grit” and would be the best hired marshal to track down Chaney. He’s reluctant at first, but agrees to do the job for $100.
Enter Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Damon) who has also been tracking Chaney, who has been on the run for some time under various aliases. He’s wanted for killing a Texas senator. There’s a rather hefty reward on his head that LaBoeuf intends to collect. But Mattie doesn’t want Chaney taken to Texas to hang for that crime. She wants him hung for killing her father. The trio forms an unlikely truce at times in their hunt for the outlaw who is joined up with the notorious Ned Peppers (Peppers) and his gang.
“You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.”
I know I’m going to anger a lot of the Duke’s fans out there, but this film is one of those rare remakes that it considerably better than the original in almost every way. Without taking anything away from John Wayne’s his portrayal of Cogburn, he plays him just like he’s played a hundred Western guys. It’s quite an accomplished career, no one can deny it. But Jeff Bridges adds such dimension to the character that he appears to have stepped out of the pages of the novel itself. That alone makes this film a far more faithful adaptation of the story. Matt Damon might not have the same flair that Glen Campbell brought to the role, but again what he lacked in style he more than made up for in authenticity. The real power performance here comes from young Hailee Steinfeld in her first motion picture. She’s quite strong-headed and totally believable in a role that was never cut from the traditional female role in the Western genre. Add it to her youth and inexperience with the kind of performances she was sharing each frame with, and I have to send out a lot of praise for a job well done by Hailee. She’s next up as Juliet in a new film version of Romeo and Juliet.
The film sets a tight pace, and while there is not the constant action that some Western fans desire, the piece has an incredible feel of authenticity. It’s not only the performances I already cited. Everything from the costumes to the locations sucks you into an era that you really can’t experience any other way. The cinematography can be both grand and quite intimate. This is absolutely the best Western since Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
True Grit is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35 mbps. This Blu-ray high-definition presentation does an incredible job of honoring the careful work the crew put into the look of this film. You’ll find plenty of detail with wonderful sharpness, and most of all, texture. The close-ups reveal both impressive performances and a terrific look, particularly on Jeff Bridges. Black levels are deep, offering you a wide range of shadows in the blackness. There is a huge attention to detail throughout the film, and you won’t be let down by the way this disc preserves and presents that meticulous work.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is just as atmospheric. It begins with a moving score by Carter Burwell. The score works in subtle ways and isn’t afraid to get out of the way of an equally impressive sound design. Dialog is clear and placed well. There are intimate moments where the sound is close and all in the front. When in open spaces, the sound design expands and really immerses you into the environment on the screen. The gunfights don’t disappoint either. Subs don’t offer a ton of boom, but they do provide just the perfect balance to make the sound more dynamic and full.
Mattie’s True Grit: (3:13) Steinfeld offers some of her thoughts on getting and playing the part of Mattie. Can’t help but feel excited for the young actress.
Dressing For The 1880’s: (8:02) A closer look at the costumes for each character.
The Guns Of Post Civil War Western: (4:41) A look at each character’s weapon of choice and the thinking behind each.
Re-Creating Fort Smith: (11:20) A look at how a small Texas town was transformed into Fort Smith. There is a problem with this feature. For some unknown reason the sides of the image are constantly blurred. It hurt my eyes after a time. It looks intentional.
The Cast: (5:25) Mostly clips of the film in this promotional look at the actors.
Charles Portis – The Greatest Writer You Never Heard Of: (30:55) This is a nice bio on the writer of the original novel. He lives in seclusion and rarely does interviews, so it’s told by writers and film historians.
The Cinematography Of True Grit: (2:57) A look at the folks behind the cameras who were taken from The Shield.
“This ain’t no coon hunt.”
This material is so completely suited to the Cohen Brothers that it’s hard to remember that the novel has been done twice before. Three times, if you count John Wayne’s return to the role in the sequel: Rooster Cogburn. There was a 1978 television film version that starred Warren Oates as Cogburn. I was honestly surprised when I heard the Brothers were taking on a remake. It didn’t seem to fit with their maverick style of doing things their own unique way. Rest assured that they made this material their very own. No disrespect to John Wayne or even Charles Portis, but for me, this will always be the definitive version. You could say it has “True Grit”.