New Grit; or, The Coen Brothers Remake Retribution

Vengeance is mine, saith the main character of True Grit, because I hath paid good money for it. So begins the saga of a trail of revenge from so-called civilized town to wilderness, a narrative trail so often traveled in westerns that it’s become like a tame, broad, well-lit avenue with stoplights.

The players: Grizzled, troubled veteran with heart of gold? Check.

Flashy blowhard? Check.

Thuglike, immoral badman? Yup. Thuglike, moral badman? Ditto.

Cast of tintype-ready supporting characters? Need you ask?

But Charles Portis, author of True Grit (1968), added into the mix a fourteen-year-old narrator who is the driving force behind the story. She is the one who thirsts for vengeance within the strict, moral universe she embodies, where nothing is free but the grace of God, which in this film seems to be as randomly handed out as senseless murders. To capture (dead or alive) the killer of her father, Mattie Ross strikes a stern bargain with a horse trader and purchases the services of a man of grit, “Rooster” Cogburn, a dissolute but deadly U.S. marshal. She will follow him to ensure that the job is done right, and will not be dissuaded or deflected from her mission, or patronized, thank you very much. A bragging Texas Ranger can’t dismiss her; Tom Chaney, the murderer of her father, can’t scare her; and the dreaded outlaw Ned Pepper can’t make this troublesome girl vanish. She’s as grim and determined as any Anthony Mann hero–she’ll get her man in the end, and pick up a few chaste admirers along the way.

In this 2010 Coen Brothers’ remake, starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld, the story of Mattie Ross bobs to the surface, relieved of the pressure of being an epic John Wayne vehicle and having to drag along (in my opinion) Glen Campbell–not an actor by any stretch–and Kim Darby in moppet form. Without the spotlight on John Wayne spoofing his usual tough-as-nails silver-screen-cowboy-hero roles (with well-deserved glee), the quietly subversive idea that a young girl can follow the masculine hero’s journey of vengeance and/or redemption makes this a truly modern western.

The role of the hero bent on revenge is to learn his limitations through failure upon failure, to question his world view, to be humbled. He may be unable to change in the end and thus remove himself from society or be removed to die a lonely but epic death. Or, alternatively, he might accept the redemption of a woman’s love or the bonds of community–a choice to rejoin the feminine. That the hero in True Grit is female is not unusual, but, unusually for heroes in westerns, Mattie not only doesn’t question her motives but uses them as a source of strength to overcome obstacles thrown into her way by adults, criminals, and her own fears, all the way from big-eyed-adolescent beginning to starched-shirted-matron end.

Mattie Ross doesn’t outwardly change, nor inwardly that much, although the depth of her feelings for Cogburn are shown at the end in a barely visible yet evocative way (they could’ve done without the redundant voice-over there). But influenced by her strong moral code and sense of rightness–a trait in silver-screen-western women–people change around her: Cogburn’s desperate dash across the plains with the sick girl in his arms redeems the ugliness of his drunken self-pity and slothfulness. La Beouf’s heroic rifle shot that disposes of a threat to Cogburn and his nick-of-time striking of a villain make his earlier brags seem believable. The outlaw Ned Pepper displays an almost courtly change of heart, from nearly killing Mattie to vowing that she would come to no harm. The only one who is not changed by her is Tom Chaney, although even he, before Mattie pulls her father’s pistol on him, greets her in the wilderness with bemused affection: “I know you!”

This remake’s end is sans joyous jump-over-the-fence by Wayne’s old, fat horse, instead portraying a sense of mortals toiling in a vast and cold western universe–sometimes achieving satisfaction, sometimes not. Jeff Bridges’s Cogburn (with awesomely steely focus in one eye) grumbles and mutters and hogs the camera in a meaner version of Wayne’s (one reason why this is less of a comedy than the original, which is still (yawn) talked about reverently by fans of the Duke). Matt Damon is as pretty as Glen Campbell but can actually be a screen presence, and Hailee Steinfeld seems a natural at both being luminous and wrapping her brain and tongue around those convoluted Portis lines. The ghosts of Wayne and Robert Duval’s Ned Pepper are strong, shadowing the actors’ every moves, but ultimately, simply, the film isn’t about the actors but the world they inhabit, one that is as black-and-white as the old oaters but without their sentiment; one of action, reaction, retribution, and rightness.

N.B. For a review of 2010’s True Grit that addresses how it fits within the western genre, check out Andrew D. Well’s film review blog Penny in the Well here.

6 comments to New Grit; or, The Coen Brothers Remake Retribution

  • Ok. You sold me on it. I’ll give it a go.

    I noticed the two John Wayne movies on sale on Amazon so I’ll grab those first (is the plan) and watch them before this one hits the cinemas on this side of the pond in February.

    As usual, a very entertaining review, which is as much about the delivery as the end conclusions!


  • bucko

    I hope you write a review–would love to read what you say about this.

  • nice write up as usual. Thought of you today when I saw in the NYT that Billy the Kid would not be pardoned by Gov. Bill Richardson.

  • bucko

    Thanks, Alana! I would have been surprised if the governor had opened up that can of worms. Billy the Kid wasn’t a glamorous, generous Robin Hood by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Thanks for the comment on my site, Bucko. I like your’s and I very much enjoyed your analysis of the characters in the ‘new grit’. I’m a western fan through and through, so I’m sure I’ll add you to my regular surfing.

  • bucko

    Thanks for popping in! Your review was one of the few that focused less on the stars and more on how it fits within the genre. I’ve been thinking more about it as the hours go on, and I’ll add it to my post to complement.

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