The 1969 Western True Grit is no Citizen Kane—it’s not even the Citizen Kane of Westerns—but it does feature John Wayne’s only Oscar-winning performance, as irascible U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn, hired by preternaturally poised teenager Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) to track down her father’s killer in the wilds of Arkansas. Directed by Henry Hathaway, True Grit is a stolid but mostly sturdy Western, with a fine but not especially outstanding performance from Wayne. Still, remaking it takes courage (grit, even), and any lesser talents than Joel and Ethan Coen probably would have failed at the task. But the Coens manage to take the story from Charles Portis’ source novel and turn it from a familiar genre exercise into a funny, somber and wonderfully evocative tale of revenge and determination.
Jeff Bridges takes Rooster far beyond Wayne’s soulful but familiar performance, making him into a grizzled, drunken mess who somehow manages to pull himself together when he’s needed most. The difference is clearest in a sequence that finds Rooster explaining the rather meandering journey of his past; in Wayne’s delivery, it’s a simple enumeration of back story, while Bridges turns it into a florid, elaborate bit of self-mythologizing. Even Bridges’ wonderful performance as Rooster is outdone by young Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, though. While Rooster is curmudgeonly and a little cartoony, Mattie is self-possessed and determined, clearly the most competent character. Mattie seemingly takes the death of her father in stride, focusing immediately on vengeance, but Steinfeld shows Mattie’s mixed emotions at unexpected moments, making it clear how this young girl, burdened with too much responsibility, transmutes her grief into righteous anger. Bridges’ name may be at the top of the poster, but this is Steinfeld’s movie all the way.
Matt Damon plays the third member of the movie’s unlikely trio, a fussy Texas Ranger, and he improves nicely on Glen Campbell’s wispy performance in the original. Cinematographer Roger Deakins does typically excellent work shooting the desolate, bare locations, but it’s the pungent dialogue and rich character interactions that carry the movie. The Coens’ True Grit doesn’t just honor the original—it gives the story new life.