You Don't Mess With This Girl

True Grit (2010)

The Cohen brothers haven't directed many remakes. In this long and illustrious career (during which many have said they are among the greatest American filmmakers), the Cohens have largely stuck to directing their original works. Those films have often been weird, and interesting, and you can tell they're drawn to characters more than anything else about a story. And yet, after 20 films across a variety of genres, they have only directed two remakes. One, The Ladykillers, is considered one of their worst films ever. The other, True Grit, is among their best.

Watching the 2010 True Grit you understand what drew them to this film. For directors that love characters and love to use those characters to comment on the story, on the other characters, and on the character's own flaws, there is probably not a pair of characters better suited to their style than young Miss Mattie Ross and the aged Deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. A mismatched pair with sharp tongues and sharper wits, these two fit perfectly within the oeuvre of the Cohen filmography. If they were going to direct a remake, you couldn't think of a better one for them to tackle than True Grit.

Now, in fairness, calling True Grit a remake of the 1969 film is a bit of an error. In truth, both films are based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, and there were several other related works released after the success of the 1969 film (including a tangentially related sequel and a more direct, made-for-TV sequel). All of those works are ignored for this new film. Instead we get a story that seems to go back to the source material, picking out the plot beats that most interested to Cohens so they could craft their own take on the material. The resulting film is very Cohens and, yes, very good indeed.

The movie is focused on Mattie Ross (played for most of the film by Hailee Steinfeld). When her father, a horse rancher, is killed by his farmhand while they were off looking to sell a batch of horses, with that farmhand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), stealing the money and running off to join an outlaw gang, Mattie takes it upon herself to find justice. Leaving her mother behind (who wouldn't have been much use on this quest regardless), Mattie heads to Fort Smith, AR (where her father was killed), to get the money for the horses and use that money to hire a gunfighter that can get her the bloody justice she seeks.

She ends up settling on Deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a drunken old codger who is quite ready to dish out the needed bloody justice when the situation calls for it. Mattie hires Cogburn under the condition that she go with (to ensure the deed is done). He takes the money but leaves without Mattie... so she follows anyway. And they both end up teaming with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is also on the trail of Chaney so he can drag the man back to Texas to be hung for a whole other laundry list of crimes. Between these three, justice will, one way or another, be served.

With Mattie the Cohens have one of their great characters. She's a fast talking, fast thinking, smart as a whip girl that takes no shit from anyone. In the course of just the first act of the film she talks circles around every man she meets, forcing them to treat her like and adult and then getting all she can out of them, and more, because she's easily 20 times as smart as they are. The Cohens masterfully write this character, creating the perfect avatar for all they wanted out of this heroine, and you never once tired of Mattie or her adventures.

Aiding that is Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie. Before this film Steinfeld had only been in short works and a few television episodes. True Grit was her big break and Steinfeld makes the most of her moment. She delivers an appropriately hard-as-nails, fast-talking performance without the slightest hesitation. Only 14 at the time of this film (just like her character), Steinfeld showed just how big a star she could be with this role. Though she didn't win an Academy Award for her performance, she was nominated. Quite the feat for her first big role.

Bridges, meanwhile, is a Cohen favorite, having previously starred in The Big Lebowski. You can tell Bridges has an absolute blast with Rooster Cogburn, a grimy and despicable man who swear and drinks and generally has all the fun in the movie. It's not a scene-stealing performance because, frankly, it's hard to outshine Steinfeld in this role, but Bridges is more than equal to the task of going toe-to-toe with the girl. Between the two the film has its central dynamic, and it's a fun one to watch.

Ostensibly this is a film about revenge, about finding a villain and putting him down. Realistically, though, this is a journey of growth. Mattie has to go out into the world and find out if she can really handle being an adult. Her adventure (and all the consequences that come with) reveal much of the truth of the world to her but it also shows that she is more than ready to take whatever comes. Meanwhile, Cogburn has his world shaken, suddenly seeing one person worth fighting for. This is a man that doesn't really give a damn about anyone, but Mattie worms her way into his respect just by being her tough self. It's mutual admiration, of a form, between these two people willing to live on life's edges.

And the Cohens manage to craft a gorgeous to watch film. Most of the movie takes place out in the woods, but the Cohens find the beauty in the wilderness. The handsomely shot views pair well with the fabulous costuming, creating a real sense of place in this slice of Western life. Paired with a script that moves steadily and keeps to under two hours, creates a film that's easy to get lost in and hard to ignore. It's a fantastically crafted film that shines bright among all the works the Cohens have made.

The brothers haven't made many remakes, and few of their films qualify as Westerns as well. With True Grit, though, the Cohens found a way to put their best work forward in both of those categories. Is a fantastic film from masters of the craft, and is, hands down, the best version of this story you're going to find.