Never having seen the original True Grit (1969), nor being a fan of John Wayne – he pretty much just played himself in every film, right? – I had no qualms about a remake of the Western which won Wayne his only Oscar. In fact, with the Coens, brothers Ethan and Joel at the helm, I was looking forward to True Grit 2010.
And I couldn't have been more rewarded. The Coens, who have been enjoying a creative purple patch in recent years – beginning with their Best Picture Oscar winner No Country For Old Men (2007), followed by the fun Burn After Reading (2008), and the Oscar-nominated A Serious Man (2009) – have done it again.
Their True Grit, adhering more to Charles Portis's 1968 novel as a blueprint rather than the following year's film version, is rich with the vernacular of the times – Wild West America – which marries perfectly with the Coens' sense of humour.
When the father of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is gunned down and the law seems disinterested in pursuing the assailant, Tom Chaney, Mattie hires US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the John Wayne role) to track him down and bring him to justice. That may not necessarily mean bringing him in alive; Rooster has a history of opting for the dead half of the standard 'dead or alive' equation, and Mattie seems impressed by this show of 'true grit'.
Rooster is less impressed when Mattie decides she will accompany the lawman into the Indian territories to help apprehend her man. The pair are joined by Texas Ranger, LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), who also wants to bring in Chaney on pre-existing charges, ones which would see Mattie's thirst for vengeance usurped.
They make for an odd but highly entertaining trio: Bridges all grizzly and gruff as the hard drinking Marshall; Damon once again displaying his comic chops as the more bluff than tough Ranger LeBoeuf (pronounced Le Beef); and Steinfeld as the stubborn, head strong young girl who, despite her drive and intellect – she quotes the Bible, Latin and the law in equal measure – really is just that, a girl. It's a terrific performance by Steinfeld, made all the more remarkable given that it is her feature film debut.
The original True Grit marked somewhat of a passing of the Hollywood Western with only few successful attempts in the genre in the intervening decades; Dances With Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992) the most notable recent examples.
Ironically, the Coens' True Grit has not only scored 10 Oscar nominations (including Picture, Director, Actor for Bridges and Supporting Actress for Steinfled, although she is clearly the lead!) but has blitzed the US box office. Grossing $150 million since releasing Christmas week, the film has given the Coens their first $100m grosser domestically, and a much wider audience than they have ever had but have always deserved. Saddle up for one of the year's best.