By John H. Foote


The American western was a rarity in the New Millennium, but those made tended to be created with care and absolute love and respect for the genre. Thought to be extinct after the debacle that was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) the genre bounced back with two Academy Award winning Best Pictures. The first was a three hour epic, Dances with Wolves (1990), directed by Kevin Costner, featuring the actor as a soldier who encounters, befriends and is accepted into their tribe. Beautifully shot, acted, directed, edited and written, it is a superb work that was a huge hit in spite of the fact westerns were considered dead. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Costner.

Two years later Clint Eastwood won Best Picture and Best Director for his dark, relentless masterpiece Unforgiven (1992) which also contained the finest performance of Eastwood’s career. Unforgiven was beyond the years best, it stands among the greatest westerns in film history.

In the immediate years to follow Tombstone (1993) was a hit, but then Wyatt Earp (1994) was a massive failure both with audiences and critics.

In the early 2000’s Kevin Costner directed the powerful Open Range (2003) with Robert Duvall as a free grazing cattleman, teamed up with a deadly former gunslinger portrayed by Costner. 3:10 to Yuma (2007) was a huge hit and rock solid remake of a fifties film, but The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) was a absolute masterpiece. Beautifully acted with searing intensity by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, it was widely acclaimed by critics.

When it was announced the Coen Brothers were remaking the western classic, I was at first angry. Why mess with it? But then the Coens made it clear they were going back to the Charles Portis book for their film, not the John Wayne classic. While the original film had been a very loyal adaptation of the book, there were indeed elements left out or suggested. And given their keen imaginations, what would the brothers Coen come up with?

But who could play Rooster Cogburn?

Who had the stones to step into the part that won John Wayne an Academy Award? Who would dare?

Though I was not crazy about a remake, if it had to be done let my personal choice John Goodman, a Coens regular, get a shot at the role but the brothers shocked everyone casting the Big Lebowski himself Jeff Bridges.

Perfect! Who could argue the recent Oscar winner as Rooster Cogburn?

Bridges is a great actor, and a very fine actor would be needed to bring Cogburn to life without the memory of Wayne creeping in.

Matt Damon came aboard as LaBouef, Barry Pepper would portray Lucky Ned Pepper and in a bold move the brothers cast the unknown Hailee Stenfield as Mattie Ross. Going back to the book, the brothers wrote the screenplay through the eyes of Mattie, exactly as it had been written. She was very much the lead in the film, with Bridges.

Aside from a few brief scenes, Mattie losing her arm after the snakebite, an extension to the end which was in the book, the story was the same from the 1969 film, though grittier, much darker, with violence that was swift and dangerous. Gone was the mythicism of the first film, replaced with a realism that was refreshing in its simplicity. The brothers Coen had made a brilliant film out of the book, bolstered by stunning performances from the entire cast, the happiest surprise being young Steinfeld as Mattie.

In pigtails and a long dark dress, nothing suggests the sharp intellect of the know it all young girl who seems convinced everyone is out to take advantage of her. To that end she is likely correct, but far too shrewd to be bamboozled by anyone. She sells back the horses her father bought and bullies the horse trader into paying for saddle Chaney stole in flight. She does indeed hire Rooster, and LaBourf accompanies them but it is much more contentious between the three. Sparks fly when Steinfeld flashes anger, which is any time she feels taken advantage of or if she believes she is not being heard. Watching this exceptional young actress hold her own against two of the best in the business was a joy to watch.

In small, however vital roles Josh Brolin was sleazy and nasty as Tom Chaney, perfectly willing to kill a child, shocked to disbelief when she shoots him. Barry Pepper, with rotted teeth and blazing eyes is outstanding as the vile Ned Pepper, channeling Robert Duvall yet making the character his own.

Damon is superb as LaBouef, the arrogant, stoic Texas Ranger who has the courage to tell Cogburn exactly what he thinks while being awe of the man’s courage.

As Rooster, Jeff Bridges is a revelation.

Wayne portrayed it his way, Bridges gets under the skin of Cogburn and gives a great, superb performance. Is he fearless? We really do not know until the showdown, which again is less mythic and much more realistic. But after seeing that and his rescue of Mattie in the snake pit there is little doubt of his grit. Bridges inhabits the character in every way, a complete inhabitation of the character. Perfection.

The Coens created a superb film, one that was a truthful representation of the time and a near perfect adaptation of a wonderful book.

In the first film Mattie managed not to lose her arm, not this time. We see her twenty five years later, a pinched, severe woman with one arm coming to retrieve Rooster’s body after his death to take him back to her home to rest beside her. The years have hardened Mattie, she is no longer the same energetic, always thinking young girl. Encountering the notorious Frank James, she calls him trash for not having the manners to stand when introduced. The bookend is warm with nostalgia, the Wild West dying as we see the infamous Frank James reduced to a Wild West Show. Mattie has outlived Rooster and the American West.

The film was met with absolute rave reviews, declared the greatest western since John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, which was category fraud because Steinfeld was the lead character in the entire film. It seemed likely that Best Cinematography belonged to True Grit, but the brilliant western went home with nothing.

Bridges, who had won the previous year in Crazy Heart (2009),should have won a second as Rooster and lead or supporting, Steinfeld too should have won. Why the Academy chose to snub the picture in all ten categories is anybody’s guess, but it was a terrible oversight.

True Grit remains one of the greatest films of this New Millennium, a masterly crafted film loyal to its source with a tip of the hat to Wayne and his film. It comes during the showdown. Rooster rides his mount into frame surprising Lucky Ned and his outlaws. Words are exchanged until the leering Ned challenges Rooster calling him “a one eyed fatman” which offends Cogburn. Putting his reins in his teeth, drawing a weapon in his hand, he charges, guns blazing. The camera shows how hard it is to hit charging men on horseback, but Rooster picks them off slowly. He is saved by LaBouef who fires what grinning, thrilled Mattie calls, “some bully shot!”

That sequence defines Rooster, defines the film, and displays to us, courage. Out gunned, out numbered, he fearlessly charges knowing a bullet might find him. True grit.

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